Fifty-five years ago, my father made a plea for bail reform before the Senate Judiciary Committee, calling for all Americans to be treated equally in the country’s courts, no matter their wealth.
“The problem, simply stated, is: the rich man and the poor man do not receive equal justice in our courts,” he said then, as the nation’s 39-year-old attorney general. “And in no area is this more evident than in the matter of bail.” Yet, despite the Bail Reform Act of 1966, which he hoped would serve as “a philosophy for state jurisdictions to emulate,” the work he began remains woefully unfinished.
Though we have seen important strides in bail reform at the federal level, at the local level — where the great majority of bail decisions are made — we have moved further away from the equal justice he sought.
Money bail’s devastating effects on families and communities persists across the country. Children are separated from their parents, jobs and homes are lost, and people who have not been convicted of any crime are caged for weeks, months, even years at a time. This happens simply because they cannot afford to post bail.
For more than 50 years, New Orleans has played a central role in this struggle.
When my father testified in 1964, he cited an American Bar Association survey from two years earlier that found New Orleans to have an abnormally high rate of pretrial detention in felony cases. Today, on any given day, New Orleans still has hundreds of people in jail awaiting trial because they cannot afford to buy their freedom. In a city where African-Americans make up 60% of the population, this is particularly troubling, as money bail and the unnecessary incarceration it causes remains a racial justice issue.
In recent years, there have been calls to change the city’s practices. Yet, as is often the case, old habits die hard.
Federal court rulings in August 2018 held that the city’s Criminal District Court had an unconstitutional conflict of interest because it received a percentage of every bail bond paid and every conviction fine or fee collected. This meant that the court could no longer lawfully impose money bail or collect conviction fines or fees.
But bail money accounts for a large portion of Louisiana court funding, and, despite the federal rulings and a community supported proposal to end the use of money bail and eliminate conviction fees, practices have not changed. The City Council sent the court system nearly $4 million extra in 2019 to make up for an expected loss in revenue by ending money bail. Yet, fines and fees continue to be collected, with no requirement that the court address the civil rights injustices occurring every day in New Orleans.
The Vera Institute’s “Paid in Full: A Plan to End Money Injustice in New Orleans” is a comprehensive plan to end money bail and offers a blueprint for a better way to fund the court. The plan is endorsed by 32 community organizations and Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, the organization dedicated to carrying out my father’s commitment to social justice. If implemented, it would save the city approximately $5.5 million by reducing the enormous cost of unnecessary pretrial detention, and would bring the court into compliance with federal court rulings.
The city has, however, refused to seriously consider an alternative way to fund its court system. And so, the court continues to violate federal civil rights orders and the city continues to fund its regressive practices.
There can be no justice if the laws and the administration of those laws protect those with means while punishing the poor. We must not wait any longer to make my father’s vision of meaningful bail reform a reality. New Orleans must move forward and change the practices that we have known for over half a century violate our moral obligations as well as our civil rights.
Kerry Kennedy is president of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights.