The New Orleans prison complex is a violence-prone breeding ground for career criminality, the columnist argues. Credit: The Lens

It’s time for the City of New Orleans to step up the pace of criminal justice reform. Too many citizens are still incarcerated for too long under harsh conditions, often for non-violent offenses.

But there’s a much more shocking violation of the U.S. Constitution at play in the Orleans Justice Center (OJC): over half of all detainees are stuck in jail for months on end—sometimes years—before they have even been tried. And many of these citizens are held simply because they are too poor to pay bail, fines, and fees.

One key to the problem is that our justice system is overly dependent on bail and fines to finance operations. According to a 2017 report by the Vera Institute of Justice, 32 percent of the $7.25 million Civil District Court budget in 2015 came from fines and fees. Of Municipal Court’s $3.66 million budget 18 percent came from fines and fees.

Bail, fines, and fees are set without adequate concern for a detainee’s ability to pay. Many sit in jail for months, a waste of everyone’s money that, especially for young people, can cost them jobs and create an embittering exposure to the justice system. It’s the kind of thing that makes jails very efficient factories for crime and social alienation rather than places that deter it.

The next city budget should allocate savings from a reduced jail population and lower jail costs to incentivize our courts to advance bail reform.

The shift away from a user-funded justice system will cost money—but much of it can be found by further reducing the jail population.

Nearly $2 million dollars in annual cost savings are available from closure of the Temporary Detention Center, a facility that should have been shuttered in 2015 when the Orleans Justice Center was completed. The head count at OJC is well below the 1,438 maximum legislated by the City Council and there is no need to operate two buildings when the goal of the city is to further reduce the jail population.

The City should also renovate the fourth floor of OJC to handle inmates with acute and subacute mental health needs, instead of building the proposed but unnecessary Phase III facility.

The Vera Institute report states that 1,275 persons who did not post bail in Criminal District Court in 2015 spent an average of 114 days in jail pre-trial, while the 1,153 persons who did not post bail in Municipal Court spent an average of 29 days in jail.

To reduce the practice of financing our courts on the backs of New Orleans’ poorest citizens, judges must be encouraged to reduce or waive more court fees and offer more recognizance bonds to citizens who pose little risk of violence or flight. Ending automatic minimum bails is another step in the right direction.

Overall, what’s needed is systemic change to remove the incentive for judges to set higher bails and fees that help fund the courts but put more citizens in jail because they cannot pay.

The shift away from a user-funded justice system will cost money—but much of it can be found by further reducing the jail population. It cost an average of $118 per day in 2015 to house an inmate in OJC, and about one-third of all beds in the jail that year were occupied by people too poor to meet bail or pay their fines.

Placing the emphasis on justice rather than court and jailhouse revenue streams will help reduce the jail population.

The Constitution holds us equal before the law, rich and poor alike. And let’s not forget the bedrock constitutional principle that we are innocent until proven guilty. It’s inexcusable that so many New Orleanians should be doing serious time behind bars before they are even judged guilty.

Vern Baxter is a retired professor of sociology from the University of New Orleans and a  member of the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition.

The opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.