The Low-Down on How the User-Pay Justice System Fuels Mass Incarceration
Date:  06-10-2016

Tacked on fees at the front- and back-end of the justice system keeps indigent people in jail, and poses a heavy burden on taxpayers
The following blog originally appeared in the Huffington Post.

A few years ago, when the district attorney in New Orleans proposed shifting misdemeanor marijuana cases from the state court to the municipal court, the state court judges objected. To the casual observer their response may have been confusing; why would anyone object to less work? 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.

Logical? In fact, yes, once you understand that 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. This method of funding the system is common across the country.

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.

Read Jon Wool’s complete blog here.