Panel Paper: Fines, Fees, and the Threat of Jail: The Long Reach of the User-Funded Justice System in New Orleans

Saturday, November 10, 2018
8228 - Lobby Level (Marriott Wardman Park)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Stephen Roberts, Vera Institute of Justice

The New Orleans criminal justice system is funded in part through revenues derived from people arrested and detained, prosecuted, and convicted. At the front end of the criminal process, financial bonds and associated fees are frequently required as a condition of pretrial liberty; and at the back end, fines, fees, and other financial costs are assessed upon conviction. This paper uses administrative data from the courts and jail in New Orleans to measure the extent to which administrative court fees, government-imposed bond fees (on top of fees paid to bail bondsmen), and fines add up for defendants in New Orleans’s municipal and criminal district courts, most of whom are living in poverty. We examine failures to pay and failures to appear for payment-related hearings and how they can lead to the threat of jail. We also look at the number of days that pretrial defendants – particularly those with low bail and assessed to be low risks – spend in jail due to inability to post bond, imposing tangible and intangible costs on both the defendants and their families and increased risks of unfavorable dispositions. We found that in 2015, $6.4 million in non-refundable costs was transferred from mostly poor, mostly black communities in New Orleans to commercial bond agents and government agencies to secure pretrial release; and that three out of ten jail beds were filled by people incarcerated simply because they couldn’t afford bail. We also found that 8,331 individuals were assessed conviction fines and fees totaling $3.8 million, and that 4,004 warrants were issued and 536 arrests made for those who failed to stay current with court mandated payments.