On Sept. 11, the Orleans Public Defenders Office and other justice reform advocates hosted NFL Players Coalition members from the New Orleans Saints; Commissioner Roger Goodell; New Orleans Saints President Dennis Lauscha; and Saints owner, Gayle Benson for a listen and learn tour of New Orleans’ criminal justice system. After a day of listening to frontline advocates and witnessing the New Orleans criminal justice system firsthand, we came away united to make our community more equitable and more just.
One thing became clear. To build a more equitable and just criminal justice system, we must end mass incarceration. As a community, we must intelligently refocus detention and jail resources on policies and initiatives that strengthen community, promote safety and invest in real justice. Louisianans can attack mass incarceration in three important ways.
First, provide equitable, full funding to public defense. Equal justice depends on providing adequate resources to all entities in our justice system. OPD handles 85 percent of criminal cases and is responsible for thousands of municipal and traffic court cases each year. Yet OPD receives just one-fifth of the local appropriation provided to the district attorney. This is particularly egregious, considering public defense makes our system fairer and more cost-effective. In a single year, OPD’s work to combat over-detention saved 12,022 days of incarceration for our clients and our community. This equaled $293,217 of savings for the state of Louisiana. In 2018, New Orleanians will pay over $213 million to catch, detain and prosecute, but spend just $1.5 million to ensure accuracy and fairness. Unsurprisingly, this inequity yields one of the highest incarceration rates in the world and one of the highest wrongful conviction rates in the country.
Second, we must end user-pay justice. Depending on poor people moving through the system to fund the system doesn’t work, and it may be unconstitutional. Federal judges in two separate New Orleans cases struck down parts of our user-pay system as unconstitutionally conflicted. The federal courts ruled judges can’t collect or set fees where those same judges are depending on a cut of those fees for their operations. No other state in the country depends on such a system for public safety and justice. The problem is not exclusive to judges. Our user-pay system creates huge systemic disparities, causing periodic service restrictions and shut downs for public defense and other criminal justice agencies.
Third, we need bail reform. Nearly 90 percent of people held in the Orleans Justice Center are waiting to resolve their case, meaning they have not been tried or convicted of a crime. These men and women are detained not because they pose a threat to public safety, but because they are too poor to pay their bond. Bail does not make us safer; it more often penalizes poverty. Take this example: Two people are booked into the jail on the same violent charge. One posts a $1 million bond and gets out. The other is too poor for a $100,000 bond. We are not safer because the millionaire bonded out. Also important, our bail system disproportionately affects communities of color. African American detainees pay 84 percent of all bail premiums and fees. After viewing bond setting in Magistrate Court, one of the players asked why bail amounts varied so widely — especially for a first-time nonviolent arrestee. We had no real answers.
We hope to grow momentum for reform by inviting people like the New Orleans Saints leadership and the Players Coalition to bear witness. For us, it is a tour of ordinary injustice. For others, like our guests on last week, it is a moment of clarity. The moment of realization that our community needs a fairer and just system. By their presence, the Players Coalition members and the Saints organization made clear their love for New Orleans and their desire to work for equality and justice. OPD is thankful for the participants taking the time to listen and learn. Now, let’s get to work.
Derwyn Bunton is the chief defender for Orleans Parish. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.