Hundreds of people end up stuck in jail in New Orleans simply because they don’t have the money to make bond. They are low risk and could be out while their case moves forward if they had more resources. There also are inmates who don’t get a bond set as quickly as they should because they get lost in the system.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu is trying to prevent those problems and reduce the overall size the jail. The city is hiring a jail facilitator who will monitor the inmate population at the Orleans Justice Center and notify public defenders, the clerk of court or other agencies when an inmate seems to be in jail unnecessarily.
The goal is to find ways to move those inmates out of the jail while they await trial either by getting their bond reduced or finding resources to pay the bond. Getting people released pretrial could take pressure off their families, particularly if the accused can go back to work in the meantime.
“Even a few days can have a real detrimental effect on people and their families,” Charles West, head of the city’s Office of Criminal Justice Coordination, said. Keeping people in jail who would be better served by treatment or health care services could increase the odds that they end up as a repeat offender, he said.
It is important for the city to find smart ways to reduce the jail population — not only for the sake of individual families but to lower the city’s costs. The goal is to reduce the jail population by 340 inmates to a total of between 1,250 and 1,300. A grant from the MacArthur Foundation will pay for the facilitator and three new positions at the public defender’s office for the next two years to help achieve that.
A September report from Court Watch NOLA found that New Orleans judges locked up 2,482 people in 2015 because they couldn’t pay fines and fees owed to courts. Thirty-eight percent of defendants in 2015 were held in jail until trial in part because they couldn’t pay their bond, the report said. In addition, 1,453 people spent more than 35 days in jail awaiting trial because they couldn’t bond out.
If someone had taken time to look at their cases more closely, some of those suspects could have been released on a lower bond or not held at all.
The city has made significant strides in reducing the size of the jail in the past decade. Before Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the city was holding 7,000 inmates, including state and federal prisoners. When Mayor Landrieu took office in 2010, the number was down to 3,400 and is now about 1,600.
The city made those reductions by changing arrest policies for some nonviolent offenses, limiting the size of the new jail built post-Katrina, improving screening and other changes. The MacArthur Foundation grant will help the city find more ways to cut the number of people who are locked up.
Even with the reductions, the city’s incarceration rate is almost twice the national average. The cost is tremendous, both to the city’s budget and to families. People booked into jail can lose their jobs and their homes, putting a family into a destructive cycle.
A report from the Vera Institute of Justice found that the vast majority of people in jail in New Orleans have not been tried or convicted. Many are low risk. “Thousands of days in jail could be avoided and millions of taxpayer dollars saved” if low-risk inmates were released while their charges are pending, the report said.
Mayor Landrieu deserves credit for tackling this difficult issue. People who are a threat to our community should be locked up, but the city shouldn’t allow suspects to sit in jail just because they are poor.