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Cash Bail: Putting a Price on Freedom

Across the U.S. presently, several states are tackling controversial issues related to their bail systems.  Right on Crime has advocated for reforms to the bail system that would tie a person’s risk level, rather than their ability to pay, to whether they are released on bail, released without bail, or denied bail. Based upon new research coming out of Louisiana, it would appear that reform in this regard is needed in the Pelican State.

The Times Picayune recently highlighted a new report from The Data Center, an independent analysis organization providing research and data for Southeast Louisiana.  The report, “From Bondage to Bail Bonds: Putting a Price on Freedom in New Orleans” states that hundreds of people sit in the New Orleans jail awaiting trial on low level offenses simply because they cannot afford to pay cash bail.  According to the Louisiana Department of Corrections, Orleans Parish and neighboring Jefferson Parish are two of the highest incarcerating parishes in the state and The Data Center study strongly suggests that Orleans cash bail bond practices is one of the contributors to New Orlean’s high incarceration rate.

The cash bail system was originally intended to allow someone to be free prior to their trial. Additionally, it was an insurance policy to ensure someone would come back for court hearing and trial, with values based upon the underlying charge and the individual’s criminal history.  Unfortunately, cash bail has gone away from  an insurance policy for courts and routinely jails folks who are no or low risk to the community while allowing dangerous offenders go free prior to trial because they have the ability to pay. There is also big money for courts in obtaining bail amounts from folks who have little means to pay with the alternative to be incapacitation.

One of the authors of the study, Flozell Daniels, Jr., who was a member of the Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Initiative Task Force, states , “what you end up having is all these people in jail in ways that don’t aid and abet public safety, but in fact injure people, injure their families.  We’re using public money to suck private money out of the poorest communities to get results that are failing.”

The report notes that the cash bail system takes $6.4 million on average each year from New Orleans, with $1 million going to the court, $227,00 to each of three agencies (sheriff, district attorney and public defender offices), and $4.7 million to the commercial bond companies.  The deeper, more insidious effects of the inability of an individual to pay their money bail bond is the non-financial costs such as loss of freedom, loss of jobs, hardships on families, and children being placed with relatives or the foster system due to the parent being jailed.

While the city of New Orleans and Orleans Parish are highlighted in The Data Center’s report, the these problems are happening in communities across the state. However, there are key stakeholders who are working to address the issue.  In a recentpaper on criminal justice in Louisiana provided to the Justice Reinvestment Oversight Council, Secretary James LeBlanc highlights the need to address “the iniquities in the process for making decisions on keeping someone in jail while they await trial”.  LeBlanc states that Louisiana needs a system focused on public safety by finding a combination of utilizing a risk assessment with financial capability that allows people to keep their jobs, be at home and support their families.  Additionally, during the 2018 Regular Legislative Session, Representative Edmund Jordan, authored House Concurrent Resolution No. 100 which asks the Louisiana State Law Institute to begin studying Louisiana laws regarding the money bail system.  A report on the findings of the study is legislated to be presented to the Legislature no later than February 1, 2019.

As with most every aspect of Louisiana’s criminal justice system and its failure to actually provide public safety, the money bail system is another of the major contributors to the state’s high incarceration rate.  Fortunately, there are many stakeholders in the state now that know there are better ways to do criminal justice and it appears the money bail bond system is next on their list to reform.  A win/win/win for the State, tax payers and the families impacted by the criminal justice system.

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