The latest statistics from the New Orleans criminal courts will revive the vexed question of whether black people are more likely to commit crime than white people.

There is no doubting that they are more likely to get arrested and convicted, but that may not be enough to prove they are disproportionately lawless, because there are still plenty of racist cops and prosecutors around. Indigent defender offices, moreover, are grievously overstretched.

The numbers, put together by Court Watch NOLA, show why, whenever you see a newspaper photograph of the Orleans Parish prison, most of the faces staring through the bars are black. The city's population is 59 percent black, but, of the 35,818 arrested last year, 77 percent were. Most defendants caused the courts little inconvenience, with 83 percent pleading guilty and 14 percent having charges dropped. Of the three percent that went on trial, two were convicted of every one acquitted.

The racial imbalance is even starker when it comes to heinous crime. Three offenses — first-degree murder, second-degree murder and aggravated rape — carry mandatory life in Louisiana, and 16 were so sentenced in New Orleans last year. Of these only one — a man, who at more than 35 was the oldest of the bunch — was white. Of the rest, two were female, ten were under 25 and five were under 21. The youngest was a boy of 17.

When Court Watch took a look at defendants sentenced for a broader range of selected felonies, it found that 91 percent were black. Men overwhelmingly outnumber women in every table.

For the most serious crimes, economic factors clearly can provide no extenuation, but, overall, it is logical to suppose that poor people will be more tempted to steal, say, at least on a petty level. Wall Street bankers won't cook the books because their kids are hungry, but they are not the kind of defendant typically encountered in New Orleans criminal court.

The numbers suggest that plenty of offenders may have been driven by necessity, with 28 percent of the New Orleans population officially deemed “in poverty,” Thus, the courts frequently assess fines and fees that go unpaid. Sometimes, no doubt, this is just defiance, but plenty of defendants just don't have the means. Last year in New Orleans, 6,078 arrest warrants were issued for defendants who failed to appear in court to pay fines and fees, and 2,482 were jailed because they still couldn't come up with the money.

And that is not the only way people can be kept behind bars on account of being hard up. Defendants may be constitutionally entitled to reasonable bail and a speedy trial, but the Orleans slammer always has plenty of inmates kicking their heels for long periods while they await their day in court. Last year, 1,453 suspects who couldn't afford make their bail were locked up for at least 35 days before their cases came up.

The overwhelming sense you get from the Court Watch report is of colossal waste. We cannot promote the general welfare by putting debtors in a hoosegow, especially a hoosegow as famously abominable as this one. Some criminals obviously need to be kept off the streets, but there are plenty of less expensive and soul-destroying ways of forcing recompense from nonviolent offenders.

No doubt we could also reduce the jail population by creating a just society, but that trick will probably continue to elude us.

Email James Gill at jgill@theadvocate.com.