The Rev. Barnwell Credit: William Barnwell
Huge disparities exist in how due process is financed at the city’s criminal courts building. Credit: Orleans Public Defender

On any given day, approximately 400 people who could be released from New Orleans jails remain locked up because they cannot afford money bail. Research shows that the large majority of these people present no danger and can safely be released pretrial.  Furthermore, thousands of our residents with closed cases live under the threat of re-arrest any time because they can’t afford to pay “conviction fees” to the court.

Most importantly, in the current system, incarceration harms all our residents, disproportionately impacting Black people, and at no benefit to public safety. Black residents pay nearly 90 percent of all money bail and 70 percent of all conviction fees. In a city that is about 60 percent African American, these statistics tell the sad, ongoing story.

Those who must spend time in jail unnecessarily often lose jobs and the ability to support their families. Research shows that incarcerating a person for even a few days may increase that person’s odds of committing future crime. The system of financial bail allows people with money who pose risks to public safety to simply buy their way out of jail. So, although many believe money bail protects our citizens, the reality is that it has increased the risk to public safety.

When the criminal justice system takes money from struggling families and needlessly jails those who can’t pay, not just the families but whole communities are hurt, and the safety of the public is endangered.

In their ongoing work to address the rise of incarceration in New Orleans, the Vera Institute of Justice has just published their well-researched report “Paid in Full: A Plan to End Money Injustice in New Orleans.” It covers the extent of “money injustice” in our city and offers a comprehensive plan to end both money bail and conviction fees with no further cost or increased danger to the citizens. The plan could, in fact, save our city the millions of dollars it currently spends to imprison hundreds of New Orleanians who have not yet been convicted of any crime.

The New Orleans Criminal District Court profits from a percentage of each bond that is paid and every conviction fee it imposes.  Historically, the court has relied on these revenues to fund itself. Two federal judges ruled recently that when courts profit from payments of bail, fines and fees, there’s a conflict of interest.  New Orleans now has an opportunity to completely eliminate financial injustice in our criminal court.

The Vera Institute’s plan is the best way to achieve an equitable criminal justice system.  It promotes values we all share as New Orleanians.  Safety and economic health are interconnected.   When the criminal justice system takes money from struggling families and needlessly jails those who can’t pay, families and whole communities are hurt and the safety of the public is endangered.

Currently, the city has a court-operated pretrial services program which has already helped to reduce the jail population without compromising public safety.  City government has already taken steps to fully fund our courts so they do not rely on bond fees and conviction fees to operate.  By fully funding the courts, our city government has shown that it is committed to financing a system of justice that doesn’t disproportionately burden the poorest among us.

In order to take the next step and end money injustice in our system, Mayor LaToya Cantrell needs to take a leadership role with maximum support from our City Council members. And cooperation from the judges on the bench is essential to bringing about these reforms.  When we no longer jail poor people unnecessarily before they are tried in court, we can use the money saved to invest in community programs that help reduce crime.

A system in which money buys favorable treatment is flagrantly unjust. Although many wrongly believe money bail protects our citizens, in fact it sows the kind of cynicism and distrust that spawns crime and actually increases the risk to public safety.

New Orleans can be the first city in the country to replace both money bail and conviction fees and prioritize safety and equity.  We need to demand these necessary reforms from our leaders.  Contact your local City Council member, the mayor, and Criminal District Court judges and let them know that we New Orleanians demand that our leaders take advantage of this opportunity.  Now is the time to act.

William Barnwell’s recent book, “Angels in the Wilderness,” was named Book of the Year in the Indie Book Awards inspirational non-fiction category. He tells more about his ministry to Angola inmates in a previous book: “Called to Heal the Brokenhearted: Stories from Kairos Prison Ministry International.”  

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.