The U.S. is just one of two nations in the world with a money bail system; the other is the Philippines. The system means that people are held in jail while they wait for trial, unless they can afford to pay to go free. Defendants who can’t pay their way out of jail often lose their jobs, homes, children, and sometimes even their lives.
Courts across the country are starting to face legal and legislative challenges to their bail systems. And New Orleans has become a key battleground, as lawmakers try to shake its legacy as “the most incarcerated city in the most incarcerated state in the world.”
The bail bonds industry has argued that financial collateral is the only effective way to ensure defendants return to court for their trials. Starting in the spring, the Orleans Parish criminal district court decided to test this theory with a pilot program that came close to approximating what it would be like if the court eliminated bail altogether. It used a risk assessment tool to identify who was most likely to return to court without incident—and then it released them without making them pay.
The result? People released in the pilot returned to court at roughly the same rate as defendants in other commissioners’ courtrooms, according to a new report by the civilian court monitoring group Court Watch Nola. The rearrest rate was also comparable, although somewhat higher, at 4.5% rather than 2.9%. In all, 9 people out of 201 people in the program were arrested again after they were released without bail.