America’s jail system is broken, and New Orleans offers a prime example of the issues that bedevil it. The city currently spends more than $190,000 a day detaining prisoners, with more than half that total spent housing low-risk pretrial detainees. Meanwhile, deep budget cuts have left the Louisiana Department of Corrections short 17,000 beds for its state prisoner population, with excess prisoners going to already stressed parish jails.

The fact that the system costs too much has, rightly, been a subject of growing concern in recent years. Less appreciated, but just as important, is that overcrowded jails make our communities less safe. Whatever benefits we get from keeping low-risk individuals in jail are more than offset by the increase in crime that stems from turning petty offenders into hardened criminals. What’s more, all too often, the system locks up the wrong people — not the most dangerous, but the poorest.

The evidence shows that pretrial detainees, who have not been convicted of a crime, are transformed for the worse by their time in jail. The longer a defendant is locked up, the more likely they are to commit new crimes. After only two or three days in jail, low-risk defendants are almost 40 percent more likely to commit new offenses than defendants held for 24 hours or less. A low-risk defendant held for more than 31 days is 74 percent more likely to reoffend. By contrast, there is virtually no correlation between how long high-risk individuals spend in pretrial lock-up and their propensity to commit new crimes.

A prime reason we have pretrial detention is to ensure that defendants do not skip town to try to avoid prosecution. Yet here we see the same pattern: low-risk defendants who are held for two to three days are 22 percent more likely to fail to appear for their court appointments than those held for 24 hours or less. Again, the length of time in jail had no significant impact on high-risk defendants’ likelihood to miss court.

It is not totally clear why even short stays in jail have such a profound impact on otherwise low-risk detainees. Loss of employment, housing and problems created within the family are certainly contributing factors. There is also an obvious link to income, since those who cannot afford bail within 24 hours are likely to be among the poorest members of society. But income disparities cannot explain why we see such dramatic differences between low-risk and high-risk defendants. More importantly, jurisdictions that have made reforms to their pretrial system have seen no significant increase in recidivism, even as jail populations shrink.

Those shrinking jail populations is of particular concern in New Orleans, which ranks among the top 10 most incarcerated urban jurisdictions in the nation. More than four out of five jail inmates in the parish are awaiting trial. Last year, 47 percent of all low-risk and low-moderate-risk defendants were detained beyond three days, spending an average of 79 days in jail.

Notably, the New Orleans City Council voted this year to allow those charged with low-level offenses in municipal court to be released without bail. While this is a step in the right direction, it does not apply to the district court and does not use objective risk assessments to classify low-risk defendants. Rather, it applies to those charged with certain enumerated lower-level offenses.

More consequentially, the city is equipping itself with the resources for change. New Orleans is investing $4.7 million over the next three years in jail-reform policies, including rehabilitation programs for those who struggle with substance abuse. The city also is moving to expand its objective pretrial risk assessments that use data, instead of arbitrary dollar amounts, to weed out the truly dangerous from the simply poor. The project aims to reduce the average daily jail population by 27 percent.

Programs like these offer hope that New Orleans can save taxpayer dollars, but more importantly, provide its citizens with stronger and safer communities. But ultimately, until we mover from our current norm of over detention to a presumption of release for low-risk offenders change will be slow.


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