New Orleans Prosecutor Calls New Bail Fund ‘Extremely Disturbing’
Advocates noted that bail gives prosecutors leverage to get guilty pleas from people who can’t afford to buy their way out of jail.
The Orleans Parish district attorney, Leon Cannizzaro, has focused his ire on local organizers for raising money to bail people out of jail. Cannizzaro accused the New Orleans Safety and Freedom Fund of “playing a very dangerous game with public safety” in an interview with Fox 8 in October. In another interview, he called the bail fund “extremely disturbing,” saying the bail fund “absolutely is a get-out-of-jail-free card.”
The New Orleans Safety and Freedom Fund has been operating for more than a year and has bailed out over 200 people to date, according to the New Orleans Advocate.
Money bail is meant to ensure someone returns to court for trial. But the effect is that two people accused of the same crime could have very different outcomes based on whether they can afford to pay.
According to the Freedom Fund’s data, 92 percent of the people they bail out return to court. Advocates in New Orleans say the public safety concerns are not only misplaced, but disingenuous.
“It points to the deep hypocrisy and injustices of the bail system, when you have DAs and other people fearmongering. … Bail is supposed to be a way to guarantee that you’re going to reappear in court,” Pilar Weiss, director of the Community Justice Exchange and the National Bail Fund Network, told The Appeal. The New Orleans bail fund is part of the National Bail Fund Network, a coalition of over 40 funds that raise money to bail people out of jail, with the larger goal of ending money bail and pretrial detention.
“It’s always interesting to see [public safety] get raised when a community group or group of neighbors are individually paying for a person’s bail, but it’s never raised when you have wealthy people who can afford their bail on their own,” Weiss added. “So it becomes very transparent.”
As bail funds become more common across the country, critics have stoked fears that activists are releasing violent criminals on the streets and endangering victims. New York law enforcement officials immediately set off alarms over a mass bailout from Rikers Island, which freed 105 people with $1.2 million from Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights in October. As of Nov. 20, just two people have failed to appear for their court dates. One of those two was arrested on a nonviolent misdemeanor charge while he was out on bail.
Activists have argued prosecutors may have ulterior motives when opposing bail actions. Being out on bail can have a significant effect on people’s ability to mount a defense. “People who are out fighting their cases from outside of jail statistically end up with better plea deals and better options in their cases,” Alison Shih, senior program associate at the Vera Institute of Justice’s New Orleans office, told The Appeal.
The DA’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
It points to the deep hypocrisy and injustices of the bail system.Pilar Weiss, director of the Community Justice Exchange and the National Bail Fund Network
New Orleans, like the rest of Louisiana, has a “user-pay” justice system, where the courts, the district attorneys, the sheriffs, and the public defenders all rely on revenue generated from the “users”—criminal defendants—rather than through the city’s general fund. Along with bail, defendants can be ordered to pay fees and fines if they are convicted and sentenced. Revenue from the fines is split between the district court and the district attorney’s office.
When defendants go to pay bail, they have the option of paying the full bail amount and getting their money refunded when their case is finished, or paying 10 to 12 percent of the full bail amount via a nonrefundable bond from a bondsman. If they choose to pay for a bond, they will also have to pay a 3 percent nonrefundable government fee on top of the bond amount; the revenue from this fee is divided among the district court, the district attorney, the public defender, and the sheriff.
Many people arrested in New Orleans can’t afford to pay the full bail amount. According to a study by the Vera Institute, 97 percent of the people accused of felonies and 69 percent of the people accused of misdemeanors, who are to able to pay bail, paid for a nonrefundable bond. The result: Defendants paid bond agents $4.7 million, and the government collected $1.4 million in fees in 2015.
The New Orleans bond industry has also taken an interest in criticizing the Freedom Fund, which circumvents bail bondsmen. Matt Dennis, president of the New Orleans Bail Agent Coalition, told news outlets “it gives the defendant no reason, no incentive, to come back to court.” Cannizzaro reiterated a similar point to the local Fox affiliate, saying, “the things that we are most interested in is that when someone post a bond, they show up in court and certainly we understand that is one of the purposes for bond, to ensure the person’s presence for court.”
Most advocates were not convinced by these claims. “I don’t really believe that bail bondsmen have community safety in mind. They really come at it from a profit perspective,” Will Snowden, executive director of the New Orleans Vera Institute, told The Appeal. “There’s still this belief that having somebody utilize a bail bondsmen is somehow a mechanism of supervision that would help keep us safe in some type of way but there just isn’t demonstrated data to support that.” Snowden noted that bonds—since they are nonrefundable—do not give a person an incentive to return to court either.
People who are out fighting their cases from outside of jail statistically end up with better plea deals and better options in their cases.Alison Shih, senior program associate at the Vera Institute of Justice’s New Orleans office
For Shih, bail just doesn’t work the way it was meant to. “The act of having to pay any amount is destabilizing in itself. And that can make somebody less reliable,” Shih said. “If you’re trying to come up with money and that affects your utilities, your housing, or your ability to provide for your kids that is going to affect your rate of return to court and it might also affect your possibility of rearrest because it puts you in a more desperate situation.”
Bail also gives the district attorney leverage to get guilty pleas from people who can’t afford to buy their way out of jail, advocates noted.
“When I was a public defender, I would have cases where after the person was bonded out, the cases would be dismissed. [Bail] is definitely used as a tool…to incentivize them to plea so that they can return to their freedom,” Snowden said. “But once an individual is bonded out, that leverage is no longer there. Dangling this carrot of freedom in front of somebody isn’t an option if that person is fighting their case from the street.”
In Snowden’s view, critics spreading fear over bail funds and bail reform can be attributed to one main thing: power. “Their concern is just coming from a loss of central control and a loss of central power because they’re so used to money being this deciding factor,” he said. “And when you have conversations around bail reform that’s removing money, I think that’s threatening to them.”