Bail, Fines and Fees Cost More Than They Bring In, New Study Reveals

New Orleans, LA—The amount of revenue generated by bail, fines and fees in New Orleans ultimately costs the city more than it raises, while primarily affecting the people who can least afford it, according to research released today by the Vera Institute of Justice. A new report quantifies how much New Orleans residents pay in bail, fines and fees; where this money goes; and how much the city spends on jailing those who cannot pay. This form of cost-sharing is commanding increased scrutiny nationwide, but this is the first study to calculate the cost of bail, fines and fees at two critical junctures: at the front end of a case, when bail is set while the case is pending, and at the back end, when the case is resolved and fines and fees are levied.  

The report found that defendants and their families paid $4.5 million in bail, fines and fees to government agencies in 2015, while jailing people for not being able to afford these payments cost the city of New Orleans $6.4 million. On any given day in 2015, three out of 10 jail beds were occupied by people who couldn’t afford bail. 

Anecdotal accounts of the impact of the justice system’s reliance on bail, fines and fees on individuals, families, and communities point to a growing criminalization of poverty. However, the full costs of these practices to both affected individuals and taxpayers had not yet been documented—a critical first step to changing the system. Past Due: Examining the Costs and Consequences of Charging for Justice in New Orleans examined court, police, and jail data for tens of thousands of individual cases as well as the budgets of criminal justice agencies in 2015 to measure the costs of this user-funded system. Researchers also interviewed city residents who recently faced bail, fines and fees, as well as people involved in administering the criminal justice system, to fully understand its impact. 

“For too long in New Orleans and many other cities nationwide, the use of bail, fines and fees has extracted money from people in poor, historically disadvantaged communities and put it in the pockets of government and commercial companies,” said Jon Wool, director of Vera’s New Orleans Office. “Through this report, we now understand the full extent of both the injustice and inefficiency of our system. We hope that the findings will serve as final proof that charging for justice—and jailing people who can’t afford the price—comes at too high a cost for all of us.” The report’s analysis also found that:

  • In addition to the $4.5 million that residents paid to government entities, residents paid $4.7 million to commercial bail bond agents—a total of $9.2 million in nonrefundable payments.
  • Black residents in New Orleans, who are disproportionally impacted by the criminal justice system, bear most of this burden. The median income for black households is just $26,819—57 percent lower than the median income for white households—and black people are jailed more frequently than white residents for nonpayment of fines and fees.
  • In 2015, 3,947 people in New Orleans spent time in jail solely because they could not quickly pay bail. And people who did pay bail often spent a significant time in jail before they could do so: it took 11 days on average before defendants who faced felony charges could post bail, and 97% of them did so by buying a nonrefundable commercial bail bond.
  • The majority of people sentenced in New Orleans were ordered to pay fines and fees. Altogether, 8,331 residents were charged $3.8 million in fines and fees.
  • While the millions of dollars paid by users of the criminal justice system represents a substantial transfer of wealth from poor communities, it made up just 4 percent of funding overall for criminal justice in New Orleans, and primarily goes to just a few agencies, including the district court, the traffic court, and the public defender’s office.

The full report—which is funded by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the Charles Koch Foundation, and the Open Philanthropy Project—is available to download, along with a detailed technical report, on Vera’s website at: