Criminal Injustice in Bail Bond Exploitation and Jury Selection and Verdict System

A sign for Blair’s Bail Bonds in New Orleans. Some states give bail bond agents broad latitude to arrest their clients for any reason. Credit William Widmer for The New York Times

New Orleans    No April Fool’s, I’m proud to live in New Orleans.  It takes character and resilience to weather the storm.  The city is welcoming and distinct, diverse and textured.  Traveling around the world it brings smiles to faces and always “I wanna comes.”  It’s also a place of shame that triggers anger, and today the feeling is inescapable when I can’t ignore the publicity involving the gross injustice involved in our predatory bail bond system or the Jim Crow stone cold racism that has infected our jury and conviction system with injustice.  How many people woke up on an Easter morning with a frown on their faces as they looked at the front pages of both The New York Times and the New Orleans Advocate?  I can only hope it will be everyone who lives in New Orleans or Louisiana or cares about either or both of these places.

The Times’ story begins with the hard luck tale of Ronald Egana being rousted by a bail bondsman as he shows up for a court date so that he can be shaken down for money from his family.  We slide downhill from there, but the phrase that pretty much says it all is when the authors state baldly that “bond agents have become the payday lenders of the criminal justice world, offering quick relief to desperate customers at high prices.”

The case is hard to ignore.  It’s widespread, though New Orleans sticks out as “worst in class.”  As the Times points out:

The use of financial conditions for bail has not always been as widespread as it is currently.  In 1990, only 24% of those released from jail before trial were required to pay.  The number had soared to almost 50% by 2009.  In some areas it is higher.  In New Orleans in 2015 the Vera Institute found that 63% of misdemeanor defendants and 87% of felony defendants had to pay to be released before trial.

As the story argues further,

Reports are finding that bail bonds are keeping the poorest, rather than the most dangerous defendants in jail.  Bail operators are falling in a regulatory gap between criminal courts and insurance departments, which are supposed to regulate them but seldom impose sanctions.  It is also unclear whether consumer protection laws apply despite the predatory nature of some of the penalties and fees.

Will it change?  It can, but it won’t be easy.  Bail bonds companies are big and consistent contributors to political campaigns at every level of the system.  There is a picture in the Times of Blair’s Bail Bonds on the front page and several examples in the article that point a finger that is hard to avoid.  The owner Blair Boutte is an operator.  He is a political consultant who is very well connected to New Orleans Congressman Cedric Richmond.  He’s got juice that will be hard to ignore.

Predatory bail practices though may be easier to rein in than repealing the Jim Crow law that makes Louisiana the only state in the country that allows a non-unanimous jury to convict in a criminal case.  Oregon hangs out there as the only other state allowing a non-unanimous jury on other offenses.  Not surprisingly roughly 40% of the people who are convicted in Louisiana jury trials are convicted by non-unanimous 12-member juries.  Way more of these convictions occur for black defendants than for whites.  Without embarrassment, prosecutors strike black jurors at almost three times the rate as they do white jurors.  The legislative history of the law, as The Advocate detailed, make it clear that this injustice came from a deliberate effort in post-Civil War Louisiana to re-institute white supremacy and control the African-American population.  That was the plan then, and that’s the plan now.

Living in and loving New Orleans and Louisiana can’t be something to cause people to live in shame, and the criminal justice system there and everywhere in America has to at least guarantee justice no matter the outcome.

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My Jay Thomas, Jon Terrell Story

the old Lakeview Theater in New Orleans

New Orleans  The actor, comedian, and radio personality Jay Thomas, born Jon Terrell, died recently. I read his obituary with interest. His career had included memorable parts and some awards in shows from “Mork and Mindy” to “Murphy Brown” and more recently “Ray Donovan” on Showtime. The obits mention that he was born in Texas, lived and went to high school in New Orleans, and died in Santa Barbara, California. In almost all of the reports they mention his recurring guest spot around Christmas on the “David Letterman Show” when he would retell a classic story of the time when he and a buddy were doing a radio promo at a car dealer in Charlotte, North Carolina with the original Lone Ranger in full regalia, Clayton Moore.

As it happens, I have a story that has often been retold in my own family as an enduring classic from my own adolescence in New Orleans where Jon Terrell is also a central character. I’m not sure how it all came to be. We must have been 10-years old in 5th or 6th grade together or maybe the Cub Scouts, but somehow Jon’s mother connected with my mother in the way of the world in the 1950s and invited me go with Jon to see a Saturday matinee at the Lakeview Theater across Bayou St. John from their big house on the other side.

We were scheduled to see the classic Disney film, Bambi, legendary to all children and making another appearance at their neighborhood movie house. One thing must have led to another and by the time Jon’s mom dropped us off, the crowd there had swollen to full capacity, and we couldn’t get tickets to the show. Mrs. Terrell had someplace to go and thinking nothing of it, there was another neighborhood theater right across the street on Harrison Avenue that was playing a double-feature, so she gave us our ticket money, and said she would pick us up at the end of the show.

The movie had already started, and we ran in excitedly getting seats in the darkened theater in the back where they were still available. It hardly mattered. Within minutes we were howling in horror, crawling under the seats in fear. We would occasionally both raise our heads for a minute or two above the seats, like small prairie dogs coming up to look around from our holes, before diving down to the floor again and holding our ears.

We had walked into Frankenstein in all of its black-and-white horror, and once we lived through that and finally settled into our seats for the first run release on the double bill, it was the The Blob, hardly less frightening to two young boys sidetracked from sweet fantasy of Bambi. In the Sputnik, duck-and-cover 1950’s, The Blob was almost more horrifying to us, because it seemed it could seep down our own streets and gobble up our houses as well, eating us and everything around us as we watched helplessly.

I’m not sure if Jon ever made anything of this story, but at the time it was the longest afternoon of our lives, and for me one of the most vivid memories of my boyhood. It is also the often unspoken explanation for why I usually change the channel and walk out of the room whenever anything remotely like a horror movie rolls across the screen.

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