Why the City of New Orleans Just Ended Cash Bail for Low-Risk Crimes

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A new policy promises to save the city money and enable the court to tailor conditions to an individual rather than relying on a person’s ability to pay.

By choosing to reserve pretrial jail detention only for those who pose a real public safety or flight risk, the city of New Orleans is leading the way toward more fair and effective justice system policies in Louisiana. (Getty Images)

In the past, low-income defendants who were charged with minor municipal offenses in New Orleans faced a quagmire. People with charges such as loitering or public intoxication could face up to a month in jail before they even went to trial simply because they could not afford bail. Sometimes, these charges would not have resulted in any jail time even if the individual was found guilty. On any given day, three out of 10 jail beds were filled by people incarcerated simply because they could not afford to pay their bail or fines and fees. In New Orleans, as in many other cities, the problems within the system disproportionately affected minority communities. In 2015, black New Orleanians, who comprise roughly 59 percent of the population, paid $5.4 million in bond premiums, or 84 percent of the $6.4 million total.

Losing a primary caregiver or earner to jail for even three days can devastate a family with few resources, leading to a cascade of problems including eviction, job loss and possibly intervention from child protective services.

Jailing people only because they cannot afford bail not only hurts families but costs cities money as well. In 2015, New Orleans spent $6.4 million detaining people who were jailed simply because they could not pay. This equates to 3,947 people who spent a total of 199,930 days in jail.

In response to these issues, the city of New Orleans recently passed an ordinance which ends the use of cash bail for municipal offenses for low-risk crimes. While the legislation eliminates the practice of cash bail for most municipal offenses, it also meets public safety needs by providing exceptions for charges such as simple battery and domestic abuse violence. In these cases, the municipal court makes a decision to impose non-financial release conditions or, in rare cases, preventative detention. The new policy also provides exceptions for people who get rearrested or fail to appear for their court date.

Starting in April, people charged with minor municipal offenses, regardless of their ability to pay, will be able to return to their families and take care of their responsibilities while waiting for their case to come before a judge. Passed unanimously by the city council in January, the ordinance has the support of both law enforcement and community advocates.

Support from the Pretrial Justice Institute, the Vera Institute of Justice, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge helped the city accomplish this crucial change to our local justice system. As the lead sponsor of the legislation, I prioritized this reform to make sure New Orleans uses its resources wisely, reduces harm to families and communities, and protects public safety.

Read more about NLC’s efforts to support criminal justice reform.

About the author: Councilmember Susan Guidry was elected to the New Orleans City Council as the District A representative in March 2010, and was elected to a second term in 2014. Guidry has served as chair of the council’s Criminal Justice Committee throughout her tenure.