Projects: Past Due: Examining the True Costs of the User-Pay Justice System in New Orleans

Past Due investigates a significant, widespread matter of injustice in New Orleans and throughout the country: the routine imposition of financial bail and sentencing fines and fees on mostly indigent criminal defendants. These practices come with hidden costs to defendants and taxpayers alike, from collections costs to jail time. We will measure the true costs of relying on “users” (defendants) to fund criminal justice agencies (judges, prosecutors, public defenders…) and develop recommendations for a just and sustainable funding structure. 

When taking into account the costs and consequences to both individuals and taxpayers, the use of fines, fees, and financial bail might prove counterproductive.

This project will use a combination of research methods to capture the full costs of fines, fees, and financial bail practices in New Orleans. Administrative data, a cost-benefit analysis, and interviews with defendants will reveal how many people are affected, what consequences they face, and how much these consequences cost defendants and their families. It will further determine how much money criminal justice agencies actually collect, and how much it costs to collect these revenues or jail people when they cannot pay. 

Our findings and recommendations will be published as a Vera report in the fall of 2016. Conducted with local government and community partners, this research will be a starting point for conversations with all stakeholders to consider alternative funding structures that are fiscally sustainable and create better criminal justice outcomes.

A broken funding system

Although widely regarded as constitutionally suspect, the criminal justice system in New Orleans—like most others—relies on money collected from defendants to operate. Not only does this create an unstable revenue stream, it incentivizes the use of financial instruments (bail and fines and fees) that have numerous collateral consequences for defendants, such as longer case time, more court appearances, and even jail. One important and troubling outcome is that people with limited financial means, who are disproportionately black, suffer worse outcomes. In a city with high poverty rates and a large criminal justice system, fines, fees, and lapsed payments feed a relentless cycle of arrest, detention, and community destabilization.

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Featured Expert

Director, Vera New Orleans Office