Past Due: Examining the Costs and Consequences of Charging for Justice in New Orleans

This report documents the amount New Orleans residents pay in bail, fines and fees, traces where the money goes, and calculates how much the city spends to jail people who cannot pay. Researchers at the Vera Institute of Justice studied 16,000 criminal cases resolved between January 2015 and August 2016. The authors then compared government revenue from fines and fees with the public expense of jailing people who could not afford to pay. They concluded that New Orleans’ fines and fees practices are ultimately a net loss for the city, spending more money than was collected and creating severe harms for New Orleanians along the way.

This report also includes quotes from several interviews conducted with people who were directly impacted by New Orleans’ fines and fees practices.

You can read the full text of the report here. 

Wake up in the morning, that’s all you think about. “How can I pay this off?” ‘Til the time you go to bed. “What can I do? What can I do? Where can I make a large amount of money that I can get this from behind me?” Every day, every minute that’s what I think about. . . . That’s all I’m thinking about right now, nothing else. What can I do? –Keith, New Orleans resident

Key Findings
  • Most defendants sentenced in 2015 were ordered to pay fines and fees: 64% were convicted of felonies and 89% were convicted of misdemeanors or municipal violations.
  • Six months after sentencing, about half of the 2,156 persons convicted of felonies still owed fines and fees.
  • “Among the 8,331 people sentenced to pay fines and fees, judges issued arrest warrants for 2,736, or 33 percent. […] Black residents were jailed at one and a half times the rate of white residents when facing fines and fees.”
  • “Just three agencies reaped 67% of the user-funded revenue: Orleans Parish Criminal District Court, New Orleans Traffic Court, Orleans Public Defenders.”
  • Fines and fees fund 99% of the traffic court budget.

The Vera Institute of Justice also released a companion video that highlights the voices of four so-called justice system “users”—people forced to pay bail, fines and fees before trail or after they are convicted. Their accounts help illustrate the problems inherent in this system, particularly the difficult choices the criminal justice system pushes them to make: paying their bail, fines and fees, or paying for food and clothing for themselves and their families.

People can be incarcerated for not paying their fines and fees… The users of this system are now being required to pay for it. It’s the poor people of New Orleans who are being charged all of this money. It’s re-imprisoning people.


Mathilde Laisne, Jon Wool, Christian Henrichson, Vera Institute for Justice