The money cities generate from bail bonds and conviction fines and fees is not enough to be relied upon.
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled 7-1 on the Nelson v. Colorado case, which shows just how reliant cities are on revenue from the mainly poor users of the criminal justice system.
The Colorado law at the center of the case requires people whose criminal convictions have been overturned to file suit and further prove their innocence to get back the money they paid in conviction fees.
“Such an approach violates due process,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the court, because once a person’s conviction is overturned, the state has “zero claim of right” to the fines and fees taken from the person.
This result should be obvious, so why did it require the Supreme Court to resolve it? States and localities have come to take for granted that defendants will significantly underwrite their arrest, detention, prosecution and conviction. These dollars are part of a river of money flowing from families and communities with the least amount to spare to government agencies and businesses that profit from charging for justice.
The problem is acute in New Orleans because most people arrested are poor and black, and the impacts on their communities are devastating.
In New Orleans and most other places, this system begins with a bald pay-or-stay proposition: money bail. Defendants who can afford to pay bail are allowed to remain at home and at work while their cases are resolved. Those who can’t pay stay in jail until they plead guilty, face trial or have their case dismissed, often for many months.
In Louisiana, it’s not only bail bondsmen who profit; the courts and other government agencies are the financial beneficiaries of fees imposed when people post bail. That’s the front end. At the back end of the system, the costs continue to accumulate in the form of conviction fees and fines for those who are convicted — the same costs the Supreme Court addressed in Nelson v. Colorado.
Charging for justice drives an enormous transfer of wealth from poor, mostly black communities to government agencies and the for-profit bail industry. In 2015, families involved in the criminal justice system in New Orleans coughed up $9.2 million — $4.5 million paid to government and $4.7 million to bail bondsmen. This in a city where 85% of defendants are too poor to hire an attorney. And black New Orleanians, who are overrepresented in the criminal justice system and among the city’s poor, bore the burden of this regressive tax.
In 2015, 30% of beds in the New Orleans jail were occupied by people incarcerated solely because they could not afford bail. (This does not count defendants with bail set in very high amounts to prevent their release or people…