Jail Wire

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Every time I come across an article on money bail in Louisiana, I’m always disappointed by how little attention is given to the families of the defendants. When courts use money bail, they essentially shift the burden of making a release decision onto the backs of the defendant’s family. Whether the defendant is released or not will ultimately be determined by how much money his or her family can come up with.

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To save a loved one from violence, health risks, family separation, and job loss, family members must rush against the clock to raise enough money to pay for a bail bond. They dip into savings; they borrow money from predatory lenders; they ask extended family for help; they do whatever they possibly can to get their loved one out of jail. They’ll likely spend thousands of dollars on a bail bond. Because bail bonds are nonrefundable, they’ll never get this money back, even if the charges are dropped or the defendant is acquitted. Or worse, they’ll fail to come up with enough money for a bail bond. And then they’ll deal with the heavy burden of knowing their loved one will spend another night in jail solely because they don’t have enough money to give the bail bondsman.

Money bail is an unfair system that doesn’t only penalize defendants who are supposed to be presumed innocent; but it also punishes their mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters. It’s the defendant’s family who’s squeezed dry by the court and bondsmen. So, the real question shouldn’t be whether cities like New Orleans and the rest of the state can eliminate money bail. The question should be: “How soon?”

Jonathan Varnado

criminal justice instructor