New Orleans Tries Reform of Pretrial Detention and Bail

Article excerpt

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. …

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