As New Orleans works to reduce the number of people held in the parish jail, several statistics from a new Court Watch NOLA report stand out. In 2015, judges in the city locked up 2,482 people because they couldn't pay fines and fees owed to courts. It could have been worse. The courts issued 6,078 arrest warrants because of failure to pay fines and fees, according to the report.
Thirty-eight percent of defendants in 2015 were held in jail until trial in part because they couldn't afford the bond set for them. In addition, 1,453 people spent more than 35 days in jail awaiting trial because they couldn't bond out.
That is a lot of time to be locked up just because you are short on cash.
Without looking at each case, it is hard to say how many of those suspects could have been released on a lower bond or not held at all. But certainly many of them could have been.
These types of cases should help Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration as it looks for the best ways to shrink New Orleans' jail population.
The number of inmates has dropped dramatically since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Before the disaster, the city had 7,000 inmates locked up. When Mayor Landrieu took office in 2010, the inmate count was down to 3,400. And it is less than half that now, with about 1,600 prisoners being held at the Orleans Justice Center.
The city achieved those reductions by changing arrest policies for some nonviolent offenses, limiting the size of the new jail, improving screening and other changes. The MacArthur Foundation is providing $1.5 million to help the city find additional ways to cut the number of people who are locked up.
The foundation grant will help the city put reforms in place to "help reduce the misuse and overuse of jails and make a more functional justice system for our residents," Mayor Landrieu said in April.
Even with the reductions post-Katrina, the city's incarceration rate is almost twice the national average. The cost is huge, both to the city's budget and in human terms.
People booked into jail can lose their jobs, their homes and even custody of their children.
"The vast majority of people in New Orleans' jail have not been tried or convicted and many are low risk," the Vera Institute of Justice, which is part of the city's effort, said in a recent report. "Thousands of days in jail could be avoided and millions of taxpayer dollars saved" if low-risk inmates were released while their charges are pending.
A large number of people who are jailed in New Orleans never make it to trial. Almost 650 people who were held at the Orleans Justice Center between January and March were eventually released, Vera Institute's researchers found.
Prosecutors either decided not to take them to trial, or they were given probation or a sentence of time-served.
Those inmates spent a total of 30,508 days in jail over the course of three months, the report showed. They were held at a huge cost to the city, which pays an average of $113 per day to hold one person in jail.
Jails are designed to hold people who are a danger in some way. Violent and other high-risk inmates ought to be locked up before trial.
But the courts shouldn't be in the habit of holding people merely because they are poor.