NEW ORLEANS -- After a tie vote in September, the City Council unanimously approved a bail reform ordinance Thursday during a city council meeting.
The ordinance would allow people who've been arrested for relatively minor, non-violent offenses to be released without posting bail on a promise to appear in court. The reform applies to municipal and traffic courts.
Introduced by Councilmember Susan Guidry in September, the ordinance was developed to address the concern among various legal and civil rights groups that the existing bail system for minor offenses unfairly punishes poor defendants.
At present, Municipal Court judges have latitude to set bail anywhere from about $150 for minor offenses to $2,500 for more serious ones. Prisoners are automatically released without bail for fewer than half of the 35 different offenses handled at the court.
Those who can’t afford to pay bail can appear before a judge, who then decides whether to reduce the amount.
In September, Guidry proposed expanding automatic release to cover nearly all municipal offenses, except arrests for domestic violence, battery and carrying an illegal weapon. In those instances, judges would evaluate the case within 24 hours and set a bail amount after taking into account a defendant’s ability to pay.
That plan was opposed by the Municipal Court judges and some bail bondsmen. Guidry’s colleagues also were not entirely sold, with Councilman Jason Williams suggesting the city should focus instead on whether the Police Department’s arrests were appropriate.
Guidry’s usual ally, Stacy Head, who supported the overall plan, raised worries that automatic release rules could free repeat offenders who might then commit the same crimes again. Others argued there could be an increase in offenders skipping trial dates.
The result was a 2-2 deadlock at a council committee, which left Guidry promising to revise the plan and come back to the full council.
The version unanimously approved Thursday was agreed upon after talks among council members, judges and law enforcement officials, Guidry said. It applies distinct bail rules to several groups of arrestees, depending on their background and the offense they are accused of committing.
Guidry’s original exemption for those arrested on domestic violence, battery and illegal weapons allegations remains, with the addition of those arrested for impersonating a police officer — a change pushed for by Police Superintendent Michael Harrison.
"Looking at the amendments to the ordinance, I trust that we've made it acceptable to more of our community," Guidry said. "I just hope that this relieves the burden and pressure on our jails. We've ended up in a vicious cycle of debt because of this."
Those arrested on counts of animal cruelty, assault, criminal trespassing, disturbing the peace and criminal property damage can be immediately freed but must appear in court within 24 hours.
There will be special rules for repeat offenders and no-shows. If someone awaiting trial is arrested and detained on another charge or doesn’t show up for a scheduled court date on the initial charge, they will have to stay in jail — once in custody — until a hearing. Repeat no-shows could be subject to bail.
Special conditions also apply to defendants who are deemed to pose a flight risk or imminent danger to someone else. In those cases, a judge must impose “the least restrictive, non-financial” release conditions, such as a peace bond or stay-away order, the law states. A judge can’t attach a fine to that order if a defendant does not have the money to pay it.
Even defendants in that group who do have the cash will face no more than a $2,500 bail amount. And any bail schedule the judges set must be consistent with state law, Williams said.
Those not included in the groups above may go free without bail and return to court on the date set by a judge.
Councilmember Nadine Ramsey said the ordinance demonstrates how the city benefits when the council members work together.
"New Orleans has a high incarceration rate compared to the rest of the nation and even the world," Ramsey said. "We heard the voices and the stories of those who have been adversely affected. Anything that we can do to lessen this occurrence, especially for those who have committed non-violent offenses, is a step in the right direction."
Initially opposed to the ordinance, Councilmember Jason Williams, worked on the amendment package following a concern that the plan would not provide enough scrutiny for those accused of domestic violence.
"The Chief of Police has worked with us to put out a new software system where individuals in a cycle of domestic violence, the police department will have a way of marking and flagging those unique scenarios, so others aren't caught up in a system where they're waiting to be released," Williams said. "We've worked hard to make sure this system helps those it's intended to help."
While Councilmember James Gray said it is a step in the right direction, he also said there's more work to be done.
"This city can't progress with so many of our people tied up in the criminal justice system," Gray said. "The Council may have passed this bail initiative, but all of you worked hard to make this bail ordinance a reality. You deserve the credit. Congratulations to you."
Councilmember Jared Brossett said he hopes the vote to reform will inspire state legislators to make similar changes.
"I encourage and challenge all of you to make that extra step to Baton Rouge and make sure you get in front of those legislators," Brossett said. "Today, I am glad to join in support as I pass a vote to reform the bail systems with the greater hope to impact state law, which absolutely must change."
Guidry added the reform should have a positive impact on the taxpayers.
"I think this will tremendously benefit the taxpayers of New Orleans," she said. "We'll no longer be paying to make people sit in jail, for crimes they've not yet been convicted of."
The ordinance will go into effect three months after it is signed by Mayor Mitch Landrieu.