When taking into account the costs and consequences to both individuals and taxpayers, the use of fines, fees, and financial bail might prove counterproductive.

This project used a combination of research methods to capture the full costs of fines, fees, and financial bail practices in New Orleans. Administrative data, a cost-benefit analysis, and interviews with defendants reveals how many people are affected, what consequences they face, and how much these consequences cost defendants and their families. It further determines how much money criminal justice agencies actually collect, and how much it costs to collect these revenues or jail people when they cannot pay. 

Our findings and recommendations were published as a Vera report in early 2017. Conducted with local government and community partners, this research is a starting point for conversations with all stakeholders to consider alternative funding structures that are fiscally sustainable and create better criminal justice outcomes.

A broken funding system

Although widely regarded as constitutionally suspect, the criminal justice system in New Orleans—like most others—relies on money collected from defendants to operate. Not only does this create an unstable revenue stream, it incentivizes the use of financial instruments (bail and fines and fees) that have numerous collateral consequences for defendants, such as longer case time, more court appearances, and even jail. One important and troubling outcome is that people with limited financial means, who are disproportionately black, suffer worse outcomes. In a city with high poverty rates and a large criminal justice system, fines, fees, and lapsed payments feed a relentless cycle of arrest, detention, and community destabilization.