New Orleans tries reform of pretrial detention and bail

After instituting new services last spring to help judges know more about the risk with each defendant, the number of inmates awaiting trial dropped by an average of 165 a day – an annual rate of savings to the city of $1.4 million. But, the program is now in danger of budget cuts.

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor
Bail bonds services are crowded around the streets near the Orleans Parish Criminal District Courthouse. A new pretrial services program there helps judges asses risk in releasing jail inmates because many languish behind bars now because they can't afford quick release through the process of commercial bonds.

Before hurricane Katrina, the sprawling Orleans Parish Prison complex had 7,524 beds – on average 6,500 of them occupied each day – making it the ninth-largest jail in the nation, and far out of proportion to the city's size. But the jail's 12 buildings were heavily damaged by the storm and floodwaters, so it became a prime target of those who believed the entire justice system could be reinvented along with the jail.

In 2010, a task force appointed by Mayor Mitch Landrieu decided that jail size could drive reform and recommended the approval of a smaller facility, with 1,438 beds.

"A smaller jail forces people to innovate," Derwyn Bunton, task force member and then-chief public defender said when the city council approved the jail early last year, concurring with the task force's recommendations that the jail buildings be closed and the new proposed 1,438-bed jail be a stand-alone facility.

The philosophy behind the reforms is to arrest fewer people and to keep fewer prisoners after they are arrested. One problem feeding jail overcrowding is the fact that most jail inmates are there for petty offenses and, though not high safety risks, remain there because they are so impoverished that they cannot afford even the small sums of bail that have been set for them. This clash of due process and public safety is the crux of pretrial reforms being advocated at jails across the country.

But by the time the city broke ground for the jail last year, the city still held roughly 2,400 inmates – nearly double the new jail capacity when it opens in 2014.

One reform instituted to reduce the jail population included new city cite-and-release ordinances, and orders to limit arrests for traffic warrants and citations rather than arrests on many petty crimes.

But New Orleans also embarked on pretrial release reform aimed at reducing the expensive and unfair detention of inmates who can't afford bail, as other cities have done for jail overcrowding. The new pretrial services program has a staff to help judges make more realistic and speedy bail decisions by gathering information about defendants. They then make assessments of defendants' risk of flight and danger as soon after arrest as possible and before defendants first see a judge. The program also provides supervision of those released on bail – keeping track of them to ensure they return for their court date. With a grant from the US Department of Justice, the New Orleans pilot program was started last April and run by the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit policy organization.

Within months, the number of inmates awaiting trial dropped by an average of 165 inmates a day – an annual rate of savings to the city of $1.4 million.

New Orleans Pretrial Services enjoyed initial broad support – even from the local bail-bond industry, which profits from bail.

Longtime local bondsman Blair Boutte, of Blair's Bail Bonds, recalls consulting with colleagues about the program and the needs of his native city, where poverty is twice the national average. "We came to the conclusion that there may be a need for a pretrial service program that helps low-level of-fenders who may be indigent or [who] because of mental illness or substance-abuse issues cannot get out of jail."

But Mr. Boutte and his colleagues turned against the program during city budget sessions this fall, when the city was asked to begin shouldering $600,000 of the cost of the program, and after Vera administrators announced the program would soon start releasing moderate-risk defendants under supervision.

At a city council hearing last month, bondsmen and supporters packed the chambers. Pretrial service agencies are "a drain," said bondsman Matthew Dennis. "Bail costs you zero."

Supporters argued that the program had already paid for itself. The program saves the city money now, argued Pastor Antoine Barriere of the faith-based Micah Project. But he said at the hearing that the program, which helps free low-income defendants from the system, is also "a moral issue."

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