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New Orleans tries reform of pretrial detention and bail

After instituting new services last spring to help judges know more about the risk with each defendant, the number of inmates awaiting trial dropped by an average of 165 a day – an annual rate of savings to the city of $1.4 million. But, the program is now in danger of budget cuts.

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Bail bonds services are crowded around the streets near the Orleans Parish Criminal District Courthouse. A new pretrial services program there helps judges asses risk in releasing jail inmates because many languish behind bars now because they can't afford quick release through the process of commercial bonds.

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor

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Before hurricane Katrina, the sprawling Orleans Parish Prison complex had 7,524 beds – on average 6,500 of them occupied each day – making it the ninth-largest jail in the nation, and far out of proportion to the city's size. But the jail's 12 buildings were heavily damaged by the storm and floodwaters, so it became a prime target of those who believed the entire justice system could be reinvented along with the jail.

In 2010, a task force appointed by Mayor Mitch Landrieu decided that jail size could drive reform and recommended the approval of a smaller facility, with 1,438 beds.

"A smaller jail forces people to innovate," Derwyn Bunton, task force member and then-chief public defender said when the city council approved the jail early last year, concurring with the task force's recommendations that the jail buildings be closed and the new proposed 1,438-bed jail be a stand-alone facility.

The philosophy behind the reforms is to arrest fewer people and to keep fewer prisoners after they are arrested. One problem feeding jail overcrowding is the fact that most jail inmates are there for petty offenses and, though not high safety risks, remain there because they are so impoverished that they cannot afford even the small sums of bail that have been set for them. This clash of due process and public safety is the crux of pretrial reforms being advocated at jails across the country.

But by the time the city broke ground for the jail last year, the city still held roughly 2,400 inmates – nearly double the new jail capacity when it opens in 2014.

One reform instituted to reduce the jail population included new city cite-and-release ordinances, and orders to limit arrests for traffic warrants and citations rather than arrests on many petty crimes.

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