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New Orleans Scales Back Its Extensive, Expensive Bail System

Earlier this week, the Vera Institute of Justice released a report showing that New Orleans’s bail system was costly for criminal defendants — and for the city, which was spending more money to jail people who couldn’t pay bail, fines and fees than it was collecting. On Thursday, the New Orleans City Council voted unanimously to end bail requirements for most nonviolent city crimes.

The bill wasn’t merely the product of the Vera report, which was released Tuesday: The council had been considering changing bail requirements for months. An earlier version of the bill last year met resistance from the sheriff, judges and bail bondsmen and didn’t make it out of the council’s Criminal Justice Committee. The bill passed Thursday keeps the bail requirement for some nonviolent offenses, including illegal weapons possession and impersonation of a police officer. The Vera report was cited by Councilmember Susan Guidry in the discussion of the bill Thursday, according to Mathilde Laisne, a co-author of the Vera report.

The Vera report found that on any given day, there are about 550 people in jail in New Orleans because they couldn’t pay bail, fees or fines — about a third of the city’s total jail population. Even if, as expected, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu signs the bill passed Thursday, it won’t do much to reduce that number because most of those people have been charged with felonies, excluded misdemeanors or state crimes, which aren’t covered by the city’s bill. “It’s definitely only one step in the right direction,” Laisne said

Carl Bialik was FiveThirtyEight’s lead writer for news.