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.