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

People arrested in New Orleans since a pre-storm jail evacuation were unable to be bailed out on Tuesday because no one from Clerk of Criminal Court Arthur Morrell’s office was available to accept payments at the jail, according to an email from Chief Judge of Criminal District Court Karen Herman to Morrell. 

“Citizens were and have been there since 10 a.m. this morning, waiting to post bonds,” she wrote in the Tuesday email, which was obtained by The Lens. “One individual drove from Houston to post a bond but was unable to do so.”

Herman told The Lens Wednesday morning that the problem appeared to be solved, and a bond clerk would be at the jail from noon to 5 p.m. each day to receive payments from now on “for the foreseeable future.” Blake Arcuri, a lawyer for the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s office, confirmed that a clerk was onsite on Wednesday.

Herman said she did not know how many people attempted to pay bail but were unable to on Tuesday. It is unclear the reason why there was no clerk to accept bonds. Morrell was unable to be reached for comment on Wednesday prior to publication of this story.

Derwyn Bunton, the Chief Public Defender in New Orleans said his office had heard from clients and clients’ families that there was no way to post bond yesterday. He called it “concerning.” 

“It means that people who are able to get out of jail cannot get out of jail simply because the processes aren’t in place,” Bunton said. 

Herman said that an emergency operations plan in place should have meant that the clerk’s office would have someone at the jail to process bond payments. 

“The Court has done its part in setting bonds daily since the emergency began, but unfortunately, those defendants are unable to post bonds for their release,” Herman wrote in the Tuesday email. “The posting of bonds is a direct function of the Clerk’s Office and the Court has no control over its availability to the public. … While I recognize that these are extremely trying times for everyone, these are precisely the reasons why so much time is invested in making preparations beforehand, so that our unshakeable commitment to serving the public can be maintained.”

Currently there are 47 detainees being held at the New Orleans jail, Arcuri said on Wednesday morning.  Over 800 other detainees at the jail were evacuated prior to Hurricane Ida to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Arcuri said that the current estimate was that they would be transferred back by the end of the week, but it depended on updates regarding when power would be up and running. 

While the Criminal District Court is currently closed, judges are still holding virtual first appearance hearings, where bonds are set. 

If someone who was transferred prior to the storm posts bond before that time, the Sheriff’s Office will send someone to pick them up from Angola, he said.

Bunton said people not being able to post bond was also a public safety issue.

“It’s a problem not simply because they don’t leave their rights at the door because a hurricane moves through — but we’re also dealing with a pandemic and we don’t want to unnecessarily exacerbate any of this surge we’re dealing with,” Bunton said.  “So I think it’s important for folk to know that their rights still have meaning, and the folks who are supposed to be behind the wheel to make sure those rights are vindicated have some processes in place to keep things moving.”

It’s not the first time the issue of a missing bail clerk has come up following a hurricane. As Hurricane Barry threatened New Orleans in 2019, Morrell sent his bail clerk home early, but Magistrate commissioners and defense attorneys were not informed. Two people who wanted to post bond that night were unable to.

Some judges and attorneys at the time warned that the situation illustrated a lack of coordination between system actors, and that a more serious storm could make the problem much worse.

Nicholas 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...