Lauded as the first step in bringing justice to the criminal justice system in New Orleans, the City Council today approved an ordinance that essentially ends cash bail for most people charged with minor crimes in Municipal Court.

Under the current system, people charged with offenses as minor as trespassing could be required to put up money, or hire a bail bondsman, to get out of jail before trial.

New Orleans, long known as a mass incarceration city, has been under considerable scrutiny by the U.S. Justice Department and by non-governmental organizations over the last several years for its disparate treatment of poor, black residents following run-ins with police and the courts.

Even as supporters praised the council’s action during Thursday’s meeting, many said Louisiana’s laws and court system have been used since Reconstruction to “recapture” African-Americans freed by the Civil War.

Others noted that the new law would not affect the pre-trial jailing of those charged with felonies.

The meeting, which began with lengthy prayer and then a gospel choir rendition of the national anthem, was marked by numerous references to the many ways poverty has afflicted the city.

During a ceremony honoring two championship-winning high school football teams, coaches spoke of how athletics have protected students from the dangers of the streets. One referred to a memorial service held at one of the schools following the murder of a former player in June.

And those backing the bail ordinance said crime is often the consequence of untreated mental-health issues and drug addiction, which the jail system handles poorly.

Yet there was a hopeful air to the council session.

Marjorie Esman, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana, said her organization would work to ensure that other jurisdictions in the state stop “incarcerating poor people for no other reason than their lack of financial means.”

Others are making the same argument across the country. Lawsuits are pending in places such as Cook County, Illinois; Harris County, Texas; and San Francisco, contending that officials improperly lock up people who have not been convicted simply because they are too poor to afford bail.

Flozell Daniels Jr., CEO and president of the Foundation for Louisiana, who had just reminded council members of the “recapture” history, said he envisioned that New Orleans in the next 300 years would “improve people’s lives rather than destroying people’s lives.”

The ordinance, which awaits the likely signature of the mayor, becomes effective in three months.

The measure was introduced by Councilwoman Susan Guidry last fall, but it was bottled up in committee while advocates and opponents — chiefly the local bail-bond industry — worked on several amendments.

The ordinance requires people charged with most municipal offenses to be released after they’re booked into jail if they promise to show up in court.

How the bail bond industry fights efforts to reform cash bailAcross the country, efforts to reform bail have run headlong into opposition from the bail bond industry. The bondsmen, it turns out, have considerable political muscle. Injustice Watch reports from New Orleans, Maryland and New Mexico.

The amendments focused on setting an initial hearing within 24 hours and making some crimes, like domestic abuse, battery and illegal possession of a weapon, not eligible for automatic release.

Judges can impose bail if the accused commits another crime or skips a hearing.

While much of the commentary at the council meeting centered on the fairness of ending cash bail, others said taxpayers would save money by reducing the number of people held in jail as they await trial for petty crimes.

The passage comes after the Vera Institute of Justice reported on the economic consequences of cash bail in New Orleans.

A portion of defendants’ bail helps to finance the city’s criminal justice system. One pending lawsuit notes that a 1.8 percent fee on each bail payment goes to a Judicial Expense Fund that pays for travel, attendance at conferences, coffee and bottled water for judges and other perks.

One judge is quoted in the suit as saying those fees on indigent criminal defendants are reasonable because “the Court’s gotta eat.”

In its report, Vera estimated that in 2015, defendants and their families paid $9.2 million in nonrefundable payments to the courts and the private bail industry.

“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,” said Jon Wool, director of Vera’s New Orleans Office, in a news release.

“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.”

Lens reporter Charles Maldonado contributed to this story.

Injustice Watch

Injustice Watch is a non-partisan, not-for-profit, multimedia journalism organization that conducts in-depth research exposing institutional failures that obstruct justice and equality.