OPPRC's Municipal Bail Reform Ordinance Introduced

Councilmember Guidry has introduced an ordinance that would eliminate money bail and pretrial detention for most municipal offenses. The ordinance, which was first proposed by the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition (OPPRC), will be heard at the next Criminal Justice Committee meeting which is scheduled for Monday, September 19th, at 11:30 AM. Under the ordinance, most people arrested for municipal offenses would be released on their own recognizance (ROR) and given a date to return to court. Exceptions to this ordinance include people charged with domestic violence, battery, and illegal carrying of weapons. In those cases, defendants will have a first appearances hearing within 24 hours of arrest, in which a judge must prove that a defendant is a flight or public safety risk in order to impose only the least-restrictive non-financial release conditions which in no case will exceed a $2500 bond. Without proving those two things, those defendants, too, will be given an ROR.

OPPRC, a local coalition dedicated to making Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) safer and smaller, has been advocating for this ordinance for over a year, with the help of member organizations such as Women with a Vision, Hope House, New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice, the ACLU of Louisiana, and VOTE. If passed, the ordinance would reduce the jail population by reducing the number of people in OPP awaiting trial who, if convicted would likely not receive a jail sentence.

According to data obtained by the Vera Institute of Justice, in the first 7 months of 2016, there were over 1,000 bookings for municipal offenses (excluding people arrested for a municipal charge along with a warrant, new state misdemeanor, or felony charge), and the average length of stay for this population was three days.

People often feel pressure to plead guilty to a crime they may not have committed just to get out of jail, say proponents of this ordinance. Most municipal charges carry little, if any, jail time as a sentence, but a person may wait in jail for weeks, months, or even years for trial if they do not come up with the money for bond, or do not plead guilty.

“Many of our members are structurally unemployed, or working low-wage jobs. When they are arrested for municipal charges, they are faced with impossible choices—take a plea deal and get out of jail, or wait in jail until they can come up with money for bond, until the charges are dropped, or until their trial. When I was arrested for a municipal charge, my mother didn’t have the money to come up with a $2500 bond. I couldn’t go to work, and I was away from my kids. I pled guilty after 7 days, knowing that if I didn’t, I’d be there for much longer.” Said Alfred Marshall, an Organizer with Stand with Dignity and member of OPPRC.

Incarcerating people who do not need to be in OPP—the local jail that has been riddled with violence over the years—does not enhance public safety, argue members of OPPRC. "Incarceration has serious effects on people's lives, and can result in job loss, loss of housing, and disruption of family and community life, all of which diminish public safety and destabilize communities," said Nia Weeks, Director of Policy and Advocacy for Women with a Vision.

Legal advocates point out that current bail practices may violate the constitutional rights of indigent defendants. “The key constitutional issue behind this ordinance is simple: It is unconstitutional to jail a person simply because they are poor. Our courts have ruled time and again that wealth should not determine liberty. As recently as last month, the Department of Justice ruled that incarcerating indigent defendants solely on their inability to pay bond is unconstitutional. This ordinance is a chance for New Orleans to show that it need not be sued in order to do the right thing,” Said Bill Quigley, Professor of Law, Director of the Gillis Long Poverty Law Clinic and Director of the Stuart Smith Law Clinic and Center for Social Justice at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law

The ordinance is scheduled to be heard by the Criminal Justice Committee of City Council on Monday, September 19th at 11:30 AM.