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Punishing poverty through prison costs city millions, study finds

17th January 2017   ·   0 Comments

By Kari Dequine Harden
Contributing Writer

Just two days before the New Orleans City Council unanimously voted to allow people charged with minor municipal offenses to be released without bail, the Vera Institute of Justice release a report showing that bail, fines and fees cost the city significantly more than they bring in.

The issue is part of a growing one nationally, and there have been numerous lawsuits in recent years, including out of New Orleans, challenging the constitutionality of what amounts to imprisoning people for being poor.

The Vera report reveals the burden on taxpayers to keep people in jail who are awaiting trial and can’t make bail, and the human toll.

The study found that jailing people for not being able to afford bail, fines and fees ultimately costs the city almost $2 million more than revenue brought in through those practices.

In 2015, defendants and their families paid $4.5 million in bail, fines and fees to government agencies, according to the study. Jailing people for not being able to afford those payments cost the city of New Orleans $6.4 million.

All that money paid by the “users” of the criminal justice system funds just four percent of the system.

Residents also paid an additional $4.7 million to commercial bail bond agents.

And the impacts can be devastating to individuals – who risk losing jobs, housing, or their children.

“On any given day in 2015, three out of 10 jail beds were occupied by people who couldn’t afford bail,” the report found.

“Anecdotal accounts of the impact of the justice system’s reliance on bail, fines and fees on individuals, families, and communities point to a growing criminalization of poverty,” the Vera report states. But their study proves a “first-in-kind quantification of this form of cost-sharing to defendants and their families and all taxpayers in New Orleans.”

Last Thursday, bail reform advocates praised the Council’s decision to remove bail on most minor municipal court offenses, with changes due to go into effect in April.

The Vera report, “Past Due: Examining the Costs and Consequences of Charging for Justice in New Orleans” took an in-depth look at court, police, and jail data for tens of thousands of individual cases in 2015. It focused specifically on the policy question of whether a person’s inability to pay money bail was the determining factor leading to their detention pretrial, and excluded cases irrelevant to that question.

The Vera study includes Criminal District Court. In municipal court, it found, money bail was a requirement to be released pretrial for 63 percent of booked defendants. It was a requirement for 87 percent in district court.

In district court, nearly one third of felony defendants were held for the duration of their cases because they could not afford bail, according to the report, and one-fifth of people in municipal court.

There’s also the jailing of people for their inability to pay fines after their cases have been resolved. As of August 2016, when the study’s data collection ended, 269 people had been jailed based solely on warrants issued for unpaid fines and fees. The vast majority (234) had been sentenced in municipal court for minor offenses.

The impact even small dollar amounts can have on individuals and families in a city with high poverty rates like New Orleans cannot be overstated.

In 2015, the report found 3,947 people spent time in jail because they couldn’t pay bail, at least not quickly.

Anecdotal testimonies in the report reveal people who must choose between utility bills and bailing out a relative, or between paying fines and paying rent. The debt and imprisonment can push people further into a cycle of poverty, creating further obstacles to finding housing, providing for their families and finding gainful employment. Consequences can be long-lasting and far-reaching into the lives of individuals, their families and the prosperity of the entire community.

In New Orleans, the burden of paying bail, fines and fees disproportionately affects people who are already struggling economically, and disproportionately affects Black residents.

Black New Orleanians are both disproportionately likely to be arrested and incarcerated, and disproportionately likely to bear the brunt of enforcement.

According to the Vera study, 43 percent of Black New Orleanians whose sentences in municipal court included fines and fees were issued arrest warrants for failure to pay, compared to 29 percent of white residents who owed money to the courts. In 2015, Black residents paid 84 percent of bond premiums and associated fees – totaling $5.4 million.

The money collected funds 18 percent of the budget for municipal court, 32 percent of district court, and 99 percent of traffic court.

A prosecutor interviewed in the report observed the following: “We have developed a perverse system of incentives to fund the criminal justice system where the discrete public sector actors in our system of justice are funded by criminal defendants who unwillingly participate in the process. Should the discrete actors in the system act in their own pecuniary best interest, they often would be acting against their professed duty to see justice done . . . This process of revenue-generating is certainly corrosive and may corrupt our system of justice.”

Nationwide and in New Orleans, municipalities and courts are being sued because the U.S. Constitution prohibits punishing people for poverty, and jailing people for failing to pay money they don’t have.

The report also asks the question: “Does money bail make us safer?” It discusses the use of risk assessment, which has been utilized more in New Orleans courts over the past five years. However, “judges still rely far too much on money bail,” according to the study. “Thirty-two percent of felony defendants assessed in the lowest two risk categories in 2015 were held in jail for a week or more, while 25 percent of the people in the highest risk category posted bail and were freed. Money bail isn’t making the city any safer.”

Jon Wool, director of Vera’s New Orleans office, stated in conclusion: “For too long in New Orleans and many other cities nationwide, the use of bail, fines and fees has extracted money from people in poor, historically disadvantaged communities and put it in the pockets of government and commercial companies. Through this report, we now understand the full extent of both the injustice and inefficiency of our system. We hope that the findings will serve as final proof that charging for justice—and jailing people who can’t afford the price—comes at too high a cost for all of us.”

This article originally published in the January 16, 2017 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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