Charged for Justice in New Orleans

In New Orleans, fees accumulate quickly for defendants going through the justice system. One grassroots effort to help residents clear their debt could snowball into larger systemic change.

By Mathilde Laisne

Tagged criminal justice

It’s a Saturday. The line winds around the block. People have been waiting for hours to get in. Inside, the hallways are crowded and the air is tense. The people who are walking out, though, are smiling. They look both surprised and relieved. They’re not here for the latest iPhone or some new trendy brunch place; they’re here for a warrant clinic. And yet we’re not in court but in a church building in the 7th Ward neighborhood of New Orleans. People from all over the city have waited all day to see a judge and clear a warrant that’s been hanging over their heads for months, often years. Almost every person who’s come in today is black. For one man who walked out the door, it meant turning an overwhelming $23,000 in accumulated traffic fines and interest into a single $9 payment.

The clinic, put together by a grassroots organization called Stand with Dignity, as well as the Municipal and Traffic Court of New Orleans, the City Attorney’s office, and Orleans Public Defenders is an astounding success. In just one day, over 1,000 people came to get a warrant cleared. Most of these warrants were issued for a missed court date to pay the fines and fees attached to their case. The judges who dedicated their entire day to the clinic waived hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines and fees and dealt with the underlying case, if possible. Attendees were promised they would not get arrested if they came to the clinic, and not a single person was.

Too often in New Orleans’s courts system, money, or rather the lack thereof, is contributing to people’s continued involvement in the criminal justice system and pushing residents further into poverty. A study published earlier this year by my organization, the Vera Institute of Justice, found that over 8,300 people were assessed for fines and fees in 2015 alone, not counting traffic cases. That’s $3.8 million that people were ordered to pay, in a city where nearly a fourth of residents live below the poverty line. Black defendants and their families bore most of the burden (69 percent of assessed fines and fees), even though the median income for black residents is 57 percent lower than that of white residents.

For those who can’t pay right away, repeat court appearances to monitor payments give people impossible choices: Pay your rent or pay fines/fees, go to court and risk losing your job or miss a payment hearing and face the consequences. Wilkeitha, who we featured in a short documentary on the impact of bail, fines, and fees, explained “it was really a battle because when I got released, it was like I still was in prison, because I got this over my head now. Not counting my kids, my bills, food, clothing, because I’d lost a job, everything is gone. So when I come back out, I’m starting over.” In 2015, 4,000 warrants were issued in connection with unpaid fines and fees or missed payment hearings. One warrant for a missed payment hearing means a simple traffic stop can lead straight to jail.

But fines and fees aren’t the only way defendants are made to subsidize the criminal justice system. When someone is arrested and charged with a crime, a dollar amount is routinely set as bail, which must be paid to secure release until trial. Most people can’t afford the full price of bail and instead pay a private bondsman a fraction of the cost (in New Orleans, 13 percent) to act as surety. The money is not only non-refundable—even if the defendant is later found non-guilty—it also includes a 3 percent fee that helps fund the criminal justice system. Think of it this way: Every time the court sets bail and a defendant pays bond through a bondsman, the court gets 1.8 percent of the bail amount. The remaining 1.2 percent goes to the sheriff, the prosecutor, and the public defender.

People who were arrested in 2015 in New Orleans paid $6.4 million in bail and bail fees, an astonishing sum when we know that 85 percent of defendants in New Orleans are deemed so poor that they qualify for a public defender. The burden often extends to family members who jump in to help pay the costs. Alfred, also featured in the documentary, explained that he is still paying for his brother’s bond, months after his arrest, “Even though my brother has been relieved of all those charges, the burden falls on me, still: do I pay the bonding agency, or do I pay my rent?” This is an impossible choice for thousands of poor New Orleanians.

Even when putting aside the human consequences, this funding scheme doesn’t make sense from a financial standpoint. The money raised through bail and conviction fees in 2015 ($4.5 million) did not even cover the city’s cost for people who couldn’t pay and spent time in jail as a result ($6.4 million).

New Orleans is far from unique in the use of these practices. But the inefficiencies and harms of this “user-pay system” are particularly striking in a city with such deep socio-economic and racial disparities and a historically oversized jail system. At the heart of this issue is whether poor people should be spending time in jail simply because they don’t have money to pay a bond or a set of fees. As long as we look to defendants to pay part of the bill, we run the risk of further criminalizing poverty and eroding trust in the justice system in the process.

The past 10 years have brought a multitude of improvements to New Orleans’s criminal justice system, from jail population reduction to early bail reform efforts and consent decrees for the police department and the jail. The warrant clinic is a powerful example of community and government actors coming together to mitigate some of the harshest effects of the bail and fines and fees systems. But with 4,000 warrants issued each year in connection to fines and fees, it would take eight warrant clinics a year serving 500 people each to maintain the number of pending warrants, let alone start to address the backlog of decades of these practices.

Shifting away from funding the system on the backs of defendants and their families will require a change in practices further upstream, to prevent rather than mitigate the harms associated with bail and fines and fees practices. To achieve this goal, the reform movements will need to work collectively and across the spectrum of community organizing, policy, legislation, and litigation. Thankfully, the warrant clinic demonstrates that the people of New Orleans are eager to lead the way.

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Mathilde Laisne is a senior program associate in the New Orleans office of the Vera Institute of Justice where she works with local partners to develop initiatives that improve fairness and efficiency in the criminal justice system. In January 2017, she co-authored the report “Past Due: Examining the Costs and Consequences of Charging for Justice in New Orleans” which measures the impact of bail, fines and fees practices on the New Orleans community and on the local justice system.

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