Skip navigation

Articles by Jon Wool

How Our User-Pay Justice System Drives Mass Incarceration

by Jon Wool (Director, Vera Institute of Justice New Orleans Office)

A few years ago, when the district attorney in New Orleans proposed shifting misdemeanor marijuana cases from the state court to the municipal court, the state court judges objected. To the casual observer their response may have been confusing; why would anyone object to less work?

More recently, when New Orleans community leaders, the mayor, and city council called for releasing people who pose little risk and are held in jail only because they can’t post bail, the judges resisted that too, despite the fact that New Orleans until recently jailed more people per capita than any other American city.

Logical? In fact, yes, once you understand that a large part of our local justice system is funded by fines and fees extracted from so-called “users” of the system, even though 80 percent of these users are too poor to hire their own lawyer. This method of funding the system is common across the country.

Under Louisiana law, to be released pretrial, anyone who has a financial bail set—or his or her family—must pay a premium of 10 percent to a commercial bail bondsmen (unless they can afford to ...