The current cash bail system in the New Orleans area — as well as the district court fines and fees system — have both been ruled unconstitutional.
Earlier this week, U.S. District Judge Eldon Fallon of the Eastern District of Louisiana ruled that the fines and fees system Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell had in place at the criminal district court in Orleans Parish (the Louisiana equivalent of a county) was unconstitutional.
According to the New Orleans Advocate, Judge Fallon stated that Cantrell’s “user pays” system that funds the court means poor defendants have no choice but to remain in jail due to being unable to pay a slew of fines and fees. Fallon also said that an “unavoidable” conflict of interest Cantrell has in the cash bail industry amounts to a “substantial” violation of defendants’ constitutional rights, as those bail amounts are used to fund the court he oversees.
While Judge Fallon didn’t specify any alternative judicial funding system in his ruling or outright eliminate the cash bail system altogether, he did order Cantrell to find “clear and convincing” evidence to make the case for jailing a defendant prior to their trial. Cantrell will also have to come up with a new way to fund the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court’s operations.
Fallon’s decision comes just several days after U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance — also of the Eastern District of Louisiana — struck down the court’s fines and fees system. The New Orleans Advocate reported that community groups have consistently called on the state legislature to implement new policy to fund the courts that isn’t overly reliant on largely low-income defendants to pay exorbitant fees.
The decisions from Judges Fallon and Vance come in the midst of a national conversation about the cash bail system. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) has already introduced a bill that would abolish cash bail for federal defendants, and local prosecutors, like Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, have taken matters in their own hands and abolished money bail for low-level defendants.
Judge Cantrell has not yet indicated whether or not he will appeal the decision, according to the Advocate.
Logan Espinoza is a freelance contributor specializing in economic issues. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona with his wife and daughter. Contact him at logan DOT espinoza AT yahoo DOT com.