The New Orleans City Council on Thursday unanimously approved a plan to eliminate bail for most people charged with nonviolent crimes at the city’s Municipal Court, a victory for those who argue that the existing bail system unfairly punishes the poor.

The action came after months of behind-the-scenes negotiations among council members, who were divided on the issue when it first came up in September. 

“I just hope that this relieves the burden and pressure placed on our jails, on the overcrowding situation, on those in our community who can’t afford to pay that bail ... and who wind up in a vicious cycle of endless debt because of this,” said Councilwoman Susan Guidry, who sponsored the measure. 

At present, Municipal Court judges have latitude to set bail anywhere from about $150 for minor offenses to $2,500 for more serious ones. Prisoners are automatically released without bail for fewer than half of the 35 different offenses handled at the court.

Those who can’t afford to pay bail can appear before a judge, who then decides whether to reduce the amount.

In September, Guidry proposed expanding automatic release to cover nearly all municipal offenses, except arrests for domestic violence, battery and carrying an illegal weapon. In those instances, judges would evaluate the case within 24 hours and set a bail amount after taking into account a defendant’s ability to pay.

That plan was opposed by the Municipal Court judges and some bail bondsmen. Guidry’s colleagues also were not entirely sold, with Councilman Jason Williams suggesting the city should focus instead on whether the Police Department’s arrests were appropriate.

Guidry’s usual ally, Stacy Head, who supported the overall plan, raised worries that automatic release rules could free repeat offenders who might then commit the same crimes again. Others argued there could be an increase in offenders skipping trial dates.

The result was a 2-2 deadlock at a council committee, which left Guidry promising to revise the plan and come back to the full council. 

The version unanimously approved Thursday was agreed upon after talks among council members, judges and law enforcement officials, Guidry said. It applies distinct bail rules to several groups of arrestees, depending on their background and the offense they are accused of committing.

Guidry’s original exemption for those arrested on domestic violence, battery and illegal weapons allegations remains, with the addition of those arrested for impersonating a police officer — a change pushed for by Police Superintendent Michael Harrison. 

Those arrested on counts of animal cruelty, assault, criminal trespassing, disturbing the peace and criminal property damage can be immediately freed but must appear in court within 24 hours.

There will be special rules for repeat offenders and no-shows. If someone awaiting trial is arrested and detained on another charge or doesn’t show up for a scheduled court date on the initial charge, they will have to stay in jail — once in custody — until a hearing. Repeat no-shows could be subject to bail.

Special conditions also apply to defendants who are deemed to pose a flight risk or imminent danger to someone else. In those cases, a judge must impose “the least restrictive, non-financial” release conditions, such as a peace bond or stay-away order, the law states. A judge can’t attach a fine to that order if a defendant does not have the money to pay it.

Even defendants in that group who do have the cash will face no more than a $2,500 bail amount. And any bail schedule the judges set must be consistent with state law, Williams said.

Those not included in the groups above may go free without bail and return to court on the date set by a judge.

The council's action rectifies historic wrongs, Williams said. “Whether you look at it from a historical standpoint or walk over to Municipal Court and eyeball it yourself, most of the folks in there are black people. Most of the people in there are poor people,” he said.

Guidry and some of the dozens of advocates who showed up to praise the council’s move said they hope the law will set an example for other cities.

“I would hope that we can take your leadership and extend this to other jurisdictions in the state,” said Marjorie Esman of the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana.

The ordinance will go into effect three months after it is signed by Mayor Mitch Landrieu.

Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA​.