New Initiative Will Measure the True Cost of Fines, Fees, and Financial Bail in New Orleans

New York, NY—The Vera Institute of Justice today announced a new initiative that will examine the full costs of a justice system which relies heavily on revenue from defendants and their families, and provide recommendations for an alternative funding structure to decrease the human and financial toll created by this system.

The New Orleans criminal justice system, like many other local systems across the country, operates significantly on funding generated from the people cycling through it—from bail and associated fees before trial, to fines and fees levied after conviction. Such “user fees” are often set without consideration of the defendants’ financial means and failure to pay can keep someone behind bars or land them back in jail. This perpetuates an overreliance on local incarceration that exacts significant unnecessary costs on individuals, communities, and taxpayers alike. While the harms of this “user-pay” system on predominantly low-income communities of color have generally been well documented, research is needed to understand the full costs of these practices to both affected individuals and taxpayers.

Past Due: Addressing the True Costs of a User-Pay Justice System will quantify the revenues raised from New Orleans’s user-pay system, identify where the money goes, and tally the fiscal impact of these practices on the city’s budget, including from increased jail time. It will also evaluate the fiscal and emotional burden borne by defendants and their families. The study will be conducted in collaboration with government and community partners to ensure that the recommendations that flow from it are actionable.

“For too long, the user-pay system of justice used in New Orleans and other counties nationwide has put the blame on the people trapped in endless cycles of arrest, fees, and jail time, rather than on the system that punishes them for being poor,” said Jon Wool, director of Vera’s New Orleans office. “By providing a solid accounting of this system’s shortcomings and identifying viable alternatives, we can take an important step towards ending this harmful practice, improving public safety, and ultimately, restoring trust between the justice system and the communities it is designed to serve.”   

In March of this year, the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice published a letter urging state chief judges to review every jurisdiction’s use of fines and fees—warning of widespread unconstitutional practices—and establish alternative procedures if necessary. With increasing recognition of the user-pay justice system as ineffective and unjust, there will be a need for clear documentation of such a system’s fiscal and human cost, as well as recommendations for viable alternatives that would make the justice system fairer at an equal or lower cost to taxpayers. While the Past Due initiative will document New Orleans’s system, its findings and conclusions will be applicable to other cities and counties nationwide.

Vera's work in New Orleans began in 2006, when the City Council invited Vera to assess the criminal justice system and propose reforms as part of post-Katrina recovery efforts. In partnership with local system actors, city leaders, and community organizations, Vera’s New Orleans office is working to reduce unnecessary detention in the local jail—which long had the highest rate of incarceration in the nation—through collaborative projects like New Orleans Pretrial Services.

The full report will be released in the fall of 2016.