User Pay Justice Coverage 2017-2019

Updated: Mar 29, 2019



Funding is paid for by or on behalf of inmates in the user pay justice system. But the city only gets the payments after they are released. The more people being locked up, and the longer they are there, the more money is made. Compiled in this blog is community coverage over the last couple of years on how government interests in both public and private incarceration are protected:

User pay justice system loses money - The Advocate January 2017 (1)

Like other jurisdictions in Louisiana and across the country, New Orleans relies on defendants to help bankroll its criminal justice system, from fees paid to get out of jail on bond to a menu of charges that judges assess upon a conviction.

But a new report from the Vera Institute of Justice says that "user-pay" formula doesn't add up. The city takes in far less from those sources than it costs to house people who sit in jail because they either cannot afford bail or haven't paid their fines or fees, the report concludes.

The Vera report is the first attempt to quantify both the pre-trial and post-conviction tab that falls on arrestees in New Orleans — who pays, how much and what happens if they don't — in a system that relies on arrests and convictions to help pay the bills.

These findings quantified a financial burden that falls largely on black residents, who outnumber those arrested and convicted.

It found that black residents pay $5.4 million, or 84 percent, of the bond premiums and bond fees that go to bondsmen and public agencies. Black people in 2015 also were charged $2.7 million in fines and fees upon conviction, or 69 percent of the total.

According to the study, felony and misdemeanor defendants paid $4.7 million to bond agents in 2015 for the 10 percent premium those companies charge, in addition to $1.7 million in government fees on those bonds.

Those fees are split among the court, the District Attorney's Office, the public defender and the Sheriff's Office.

Meanwhile, a report issued by former New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux's office recommended funding Municipal Court through a general appropriation and urged the city to lobby the Legislature to do away with fees to fund the court.

"This funding structure threatens the impartiality of judges by providing financial incentive to deny defendants equal access to justice," the report said.

User pay justice system drives mass incarceration - Prison Legal News May 2017 (2)

More recently, when New Orleans community leaders, the mayor, and city council called for releasing people who pose little risk and are held in jail only because they can’t post bail, the judges resisted that too, despite the fact that New Orleans until recently jailed more people per capita than any other American city.

A large part of our local justice system is funded by fines and fees extracted from so-called “users” of the system, even though 80 percent of these users are too poor to hire their own lawyer.

Under Louisiana law, to be released pretrial, anyone who has a financial bail set—or his or her family—must pay a premium of 10 percent to a commercial bail bondsmen (unless they can afford to pay 100 percent in cash). But, they also must pay fees to the court, the prosecutor, the public defender, and the sheriff totaling three percent of the bail amount set by the judge.

The premium and fees are non-refundable even if the person makes every court appearance and is never prosecuted or convicted. At the back end of the criminal case, additional fees—some mandatory, some discretionary—are levied on people who are convicted of crimes. Paid principally to the court, but also to other agencies including the public defender representing the indigent defendant, one person’s fees may total $2,000 or more.

Judges may feel they have only one tool at their disposal to try to extract this needed revenue from poor people: the threat of jail. Jail is used pretrial for those who can’t pay their bail and associated fees, and after sentencing, for those who can’t pay conviction fees. So when the judges try to hold on to misdemeanor marijuana cases or resist releasing low-risk defendants without a financial bail, they may be seeking to hold defendants accountable, but the difficult truth is that they’re preserving a steady stream of revenue. Writ large, this system represents an extraordinarily regressive tax—a transfer of scarce assets from poor communities to government institutions and commercial interests.

Media outlets publish common business practices funding the criminal court system between January 2017 and January 2019 (3,4,5)

The Vera Institute explained 2015 incarceration statistics when Examining the Costs and Consequences of Charging for Justice in New Orleans,”Because many ‘users’ of the system have very low incomes or none at all, there is growing concern that charging for justice amounts to criminalizing poverty, especially when people who can’t pay become further entangled in the justice system.”

The Advocate covers exploitive bail issues during June 2018, expanding on case studies from Orleans Public Defender Chief of Trials Danny Engelberg, “People continue to enter the city jail only to have their cases effectively end without any jail sentence, other than the ‘pre-punishment’ they face for not having cash for bail.”

Jan 2019 the New York Times sums up the Louisiana justice system in action through One Lawyer, 194 Felony Cases, and No Time: In some courtrooms the lucky ones get five minutes.

New Orleans community reports on bail bondsmen overcharging between September 2017 and February 2019 (6,7,8,9)

New Orleans bail bondsmen owe refunds to thousands of clients, according to the state insurance commissioner via Nola.com. Legally state law allows bondsmen to charge 12% of a bond set by a judge; however, Orleans Parish bondsmen have been charging 13% through a Katrina era loophole which funnels money to the criminal district court. The Director of Justice Policy for the Vera Institute of Justice, Jon Wool, reported on the local “user-pay” justice system in May 2017. As quoted by The Advocate in February 2019, Wool says “when money is the goal of any part of the criminal justice system, it’s going to be misused.”

Criminal Legal News on judge ordering reform October 2018 (10)

On August 6, 2018, Judge Eldon E. Fallon of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana ordered the New Orleans Municipal Court system to reform its money bond system, stating in his opinion in a case filed by defendants that, “[p]laintiffs have been deprived of their fundamental right to pretrial liberty.”

Criminal justice advocates said reforming the bail process also would have the added benefit of reducing the prison population by over half, resulting in millions of dollars of savings for the city of New Orleans. “It can be a win-win for the court’s finances and for the city’s budget,” Wool said, “and not insignificantly for the low-income people who are being targeted for taxation to fund the criminal justice system unnecessarily and inappropriately,” and permit the accused to return to their daily affairs while awaiting the disposition of their case.

Nola.com on ending money bail for juveniles January 2019 (11)

Youths awaiting trial in Orleans Parish will no longer be detained simply because their families can’t afford to post bond, New Orleans Juvenile Court judges said.

Judges said at the time the fines and fees undermine two main goals of the juvenile justice system: rehabilitation and public safety.

According to their press release, “the court is committed to eliminating policies that base personal liberty on financial ability rather than likelihood to appear in court or the potential for future delinquent behavior.”

In adult court, a push for bail reform has gained ground in recent months, as city leaders continue their efforts to reduce New Orleans’ jail population.

LA routinely jails people after release dates February 2019 (12)

“The criminal justice system is based on the idea that if you do a crime you serve your time and then you go free. And that going free part is not being carried out correctly in Louisiana,” said civil rights attorney William Most, who has lawsuits pending against DOC and local sheriff’s offices related to the alleged overdetention of five different clients.

“It’s hard to be in prison. But it’s even harder to be in prison knowing that you should be free and not having any idea when you’re going to get out,” Most said.

Public Defender sues city for surveillance camera records February 2019 (13)

Orleans Parish Public Defender Laura Bixby on Wednesday filed a lawsuit against the city of New Orleans for refusing to turn over records showing the locations of hundreds of crime cameras it has installed since 2017.

Camera footage, her lawsuit says, has the potential to be used to establish a criminal suspect’s alibi, possibly away from the scene of a crime.

In addition, the lawsuit argues, the public has a legitimate interest in knowing more about how the cameras are deployed, given their capabilities. The crime cameras use powerful object-identification and tracking software and are capable of zooming in on people from hundreds of feet away.

The city denied the map request, however, saying camera location records were exempt from disclosure under the law because they involved “investigative technical equipment and physical security information created in the prevention of terrorist-related activity.”

The lawsuit argues that the cameras, rather than a terrorism-prevention tool, are “routinely used in the prosecution of crimes in the city,” as well as the city’s other day-to-day operations.

Real-Time Crime Monitoring Center employees “relay street flooding information to public works employees, traffic information to emergency vehicles en route, information about storm-related hazards, on–scene information to police officers responding to calls for service. They also support administrative quality of life investigations,” the lawsuit says. If active surveillance is primarily happening in response to 911 calls and other requests, it’s unclear how it would be effective to prevent terrorism.

Who is incarceration helping? Who is incarceration hurting? The current system in action puts getting the city the most bang for its buck over rehabilitation, public safety, and punishment when actually severely needed. Lack of reduction in prisoners despite a decrease in arrests is due to the continued lockup of people who do not need to be in jail just because it gives someone a job. Rather than supporting the community, the legal system criminalizes people through mass incarceration which is ultimately modern day slavery under the disguise of justice.

Sources:

1. New Orleans’ ‘User-Pay’ Justice System Loses Money When Bail, Fees Can’t be Paid

2. How Our User Pay Justice System Drives Mass Incarceration

3. Past Due: Examining the Costs and Consequences of Charging for Justice in New Orleans

4. Bail Bondage: The Price of Freedom

5. One Lawyer, 194 Felony Cases, and No Time

6. New Orleans Bail Bond Companies Told to Refund Years of Overcharges

7. The Count: How Much New Orleans Bail Bond Companies Overcharged

8. New Orleans Bail Bond Companies Overcharging Defendants

9. New Orleans Bail Bondsmen Owe Refunds to Thousands of Clients

10. Federal Judge Orders New Orleans Municipal Court System to Reform Money Bail

11. Bail Will No Longer be Used in New Orleans Juvenile Court as a Condition of Pretrial Release

12. Louisiana Routinely Jails People Weeks, Months, Years After Their Release Dates

13. Public Defender Sues City for Records on Surveillance Camera Locations