The Orleans Justice Center. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

The New Orleans Safety and Freedom Fund, an organization that posts bail for people being held at the New Orleans jail, is planning on bailing out dozens of people over the July 4 weekend. 

Montrell Carmouche, who heads the organization, said the group plans to spend between $200,000 and $300,000 to pay bail for people incarcerated on nonviolent crimes with bail set at under $15,000, and that they were currently reviewing incarcerated individuals to see who would qualify and determine exactly how many people they would be able to bail out. 

Since the coronavirus pandemic began, the Safety and Freedom Fund has been part of a broad push to lower the jail population in New Orleans. Carmouche said the organization, which is under the umbrella of the nonprofit Operation Restoration, has spent around $700,000 to bail out over 170 people since mid-March.

When the first presumptive case of coronavirus was detected in Louisiana on March 9, there were 1,051 individuals in custody of the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, according to jail data posted on the New Orleans City Council website. As of Thursday morning that number was 847, after having dropped below 800 in April. 

Carmouche at least partly credited her organization’s work in the city’s recent decision to ask a federal judge to halt the construction of a controversial new jail building, known as Phase III. In their request, the city cited decreased revenue due to COVID-19, and also the reduced jail population.

“The extent of the bailouts has even been able to help make the decision to not go forward with the jail expansion because the population is too low,” Carmouche said. “If there’s not enough people in jail, there’s no need to expand it.”

The bail fund is one of several organizations pushing for the end of cash bail in New Orleans, arguing it is unjust to keep people in jail for financial reasons and that it disproportionately harms Black families. 

Last year, the Vera Institute of Justice released a report advocating for the end to the cash bail system. Vera’s report found that in 2018, 1,756 people were incarcerated in the New Orleans jail because they couldn’t afford bail, only to be released after their case was resolved. Of those people, 80 percent were Black. 

But ending cash bail has also been criticized by local officials and groups as a threat to public safety, and the Safety and Freedom Fund in particular has been a target of Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro

A spokesman for Cannizzaro did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this story. 

Rafael Goyeneche, of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, said while it was certainly the right of the Safety and Freedom Fund to post bail for individuals, he hoped they were taking into consideration the public safety implications of their decisions. 

“I think that yes, they want to help the offender, but they need to take into consideration the risk that they are exposing victims, and witnesses, and citizens to in all of this,” Goyeneche said. “It’s a balancing act. It’s legal what they’re going to do. It’s permitted under the law. And I hope it goes well.”

Critics, including Cannizzaro, repeatedly pointed to the case of DeQuan Ayers, who was bailed out on a marijuana charge in 2018 by the Safety and Freedom Fund. Months later, after missing court appearances, Ayers was arrested for a robbery in the French Quarter. Ayers later pleaded guilty to the marijuana charge and simple robbery, according to court records. 

Carmouche said that the screening process the organization uses takes into consideration the crime a person has been arrested for, their past failure to appear, and in the cases that involve a stay-away order they reach out to a third-party contact to make sure the person does not go back to the same residence as the complaining witness. 

In addition, she said that the fact that judges have set a cash bail in the first place indicates that they have made a determination that the person can be safely released while their cases are being processed through the system.

“We do our due diligence around public safety,” she said. “Because what we don’t want to do is put anybody at risk, but also want to be able to support people and give people the opportunity to be out while their cases run through the court.”

Nationally, bail funds have received an influx of donations in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minneapolis. The Minnesota Freedom Fund, which until recently had just one full time employee, has received $30 million since Floyd’s death. The collective bail funds under the National Bail Fund Network, of which the Safety and Freedom Fund is a part, have received around $75 million

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...