Immediately upon sitting down with The Lens, George Soros immediately raised concerns about people trafficked in from overseas to work for Gulf Coast companies under draconian conditions, and then criminally detained for organizing and complaining about those conditions. He later lamented the amount of money spent on sending young students to courts and prisons, creating, he said, “a tremendous amount of human suffering which is totally unnecessary.”

Speaking Tuesday evening at a moderated panel discussion with retired Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Calvin Johnson, Soros offered to help finance research into ideas for alternative ways of financing the district court system. The offer came after Johnson commented on the courts’ dependence on bail and bond money.

“We operate the criminal system in order to fund it,” Johnson said. But Soros’ will only pay for part of the study, as long as the city pays the rest. “If I pay for all of it, they will not read it,” he reasoned.

Soros visited New Orleans Criminal District Courts to see the local justice system at work. He saw mostly African Americans being taken to jail for petty drug offenses. The Open Society Institute, of which he is chairman, has worked to reform drug policy over the past couple decades and he told The Lens that he sees change.

“I think the public is gradually waking up to” the problem of spending vast sums of public money on incarceration.

Soros says he was told that the New Orleans incarceration rate was four or five times the national incarceration rate. Though it’s closer to twice the national rate, he is correct in pointing out that the New Orleans rate is the highest of any city in the country.

Soros and other members of the Open Society Insitute are in New Orleans for a meeting of its grant-making board, and to review his investments in the city. The Lens is financed in part by a grant from the institute.