OPPRC Unveils Mural in Effort to Bring Attention to Problematic Cash Bail System in New Orleans

Photo Credit: OPPRC

Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition (OPPRC) is working to end cash bail and make jails in New Orleans more humane.

Established in 2004, OPPRC is a grassroots group of individuals who work to improve the conditions of those held in Orleans Parish detention. The group works to reduce incarceration and create more humane jail conditions.

OPPRC has been instrumental in harm reduction and the Orleans Parish jail population has been reduced from 6,500 inmates, pre- Katrina, to less than 900 inmates today- the biggest decrease in incarcerations in the country. These numbers have decreased, in part, due to routine bond reviews, the issuing of summons, instead of arrests, and the creation of a Justice System Administrator position which addresses issues that lead to long jail stays.

OPPRC works to get people out of jails and reduce the number of available beds in jails, forcing jails to rethink their practices. To put it simply: smaller jails means that there are fewer people for the system to mismanage. In many cases, people are arrested and jailed needlessly for small infractions that could be addressed with a summons, rather than an arrest.

OPPRC’s goal is to eliminate cash bail- a system that is unconstitutional, targets Black and Brown people and drains public resources.

What is the point of bail, in the first place? On paper, its purpose is to guarantee a defendants’ appearance in court for trial. However, if a person cannot pay their bail, they could be jailed for months, even for a small infraction.

According to OPPRC, New Orleans’ criminal legal system is a “user pay” system that coercively extracts money from individuals that have become entangled within it at almost every step of the process. The criminal legal system then uses money earned through the use of cash bail, fines and fees to finance its own operations. From the sheriff to the office of the public defender, almost every component of the system receives funding from money extracted from community members.

Cash bail is problematic because it’s unbalanced. Bail perpetuates the cycle of poverty in communities that can’t afford to pay it. The bail system impacts Black households who have a median income 57% lower than white households, which costs taxpayers money. Black families pay 88% of the dollars extracted through bail and, out of a third of people who are in jail unable to post bail, 8 out of 10 of them are Black. 

Orleans Parish would save between $3.7 million and $8.3 million, over the course of a year, by eliminating the unnecessary incarceration that results from a reliance on money bail and unnecessary probation detention. 

In addition to the cost, cash bail does not ensure that a person will show up to court. In 2015, between 83-88% of people who were released without money bail showed up to court. However, when fines and fees are assessed, people are considerably less likely to show up for court dates out of fear of being locked up for failure to pay.

OPPRC Executive Director Sade Dumas explained, “Bail doesn’t make the community safer; it’s just a matter of if you can afford to get out. What’s been happening now isn’t working; we need a system that doesn’t disproportionately target Black people and exploit taxpayers.”

Along with being an unbalanced system, bail can result in the destruction of the lives of those forced to pay it. If a person is arrested and held until they can pay bail, they may be forced to sit in jail, while awaiting their trial. The result is loss of jobs, housing and children and inability to pay bills. Such disruption of a person’s life, especially for a small infraction, can lead to a cycle of crime that otherwise would not occur. 

According to OPPRC, in early 2016, 90% of people inside Orleans Parish Prison were awaiting their day in court, many of whom simply because they were unable to pay their bond. Only 10% of people in Orleans Parish Prison were convicted of a crime and serving a sentence.

On April 3rd, Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition hosted a launch of an art installation project at Addis NOLA, intended to raise public awareness about the negative impact of money bail, fines, and fees, along with advocacy efforts to dismantle this practice in New Orleans. The mural titled “Innocent Until Proven Guilty”, by Artist Journey Allen, and students from the Living School, illustrates the cycle and impact of money injustice in New Orleans. The mural is located at 422 S. Broad Avenue, less than three blocks from the New Orleans jail.

Photo Credit: OPPRC

This project aligns with OPPRC’s commitment to educate the community on the issue, engage people offline, and highlight partners who are also doing this work. The event served as an opportunity for partners to educate the public through art, while highlighting restorative practices and celebrating the resilient spirit of our community. The event also included an afternoon of art and music by the 21st Century Brass Band and Ethiopian food provided by Addis NOLA.

“It’s important to constantly build a community of involved residents who care about the cause,” Sade Dumas said. “We wanted to create something that spoke of our message and gave people hope.”

Through their work in the community, OPPRC has proposed an ordinance to eliminate bail and bond for most municipal offenses, which was passed unanimously by the New Orleans City Council which was passed in January 2017. In February 2021 OPPRC hosted a bonfire that brought the community together to burn the money bail system. At the socially-distanced event, at the historically Black Lincoln Beach, attendees learned about the injustices of the money bail system in New Orleans and shared their vision of a future without cash bail. They then symbolically “burned” the money bail system. 

In March 2021, OPPRC hosted a virtual event to educate the community and envision a future without money bail. OPPRC and partner organizations, including the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice, the Vera Institute of Justice, Operation Restoration, and Step Up Louisiana, educated participants on bail, fines, and fees while sharing action steps to help eradicate the issue. The groups then held discussions about policy advocacy, mutual aid through supporting the Safety and Freedom Fund, and methods to build a larger movement by activating new activists.

Bail reform is possible. In New Jersey, lawmakers have passed reform that looks at each individual case and decides if that person can return home, rather than issue a bail that a person may be unable to pay. If we truly want to say that someone is “innocent until proven guilty”, bail reform in Orleans Parish must be a priority.

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