WWNO skyline header graphic
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Local Newscast
Hear the latest from the WWNO/WRKF Newsroom.

Justice Is Blind To Money, Part 2: The System

Cheryl Gerber
Calvin Johnson.

The Myth Justice is Blind to Money, Part 2, tells the story of one prior attempt to get rid of money bail and how this attempt was thwarted by the status quo. It’s a dive into systems and the difficulty of dismantling a system as complex as our nation’s criminal legal system.

Last time, on Unprisoned:

ALBERT: first thing he did, he put the handcuffs on me. So I got handcuffed. They put me in the back. They brought me to Orleans Justice Center. I was processed and booked with distribution.

NORMA: They brought the prisoners in, and it was so impersonal. It's not that they were ever brought up front, really. It was done from a distance. So from a point of personal “where that I?” I would've felt that my case wasn't heard, that-- it wouldn't have been me because I can pay (laughs)

EVE:When you’re arrested in New Orleans, and you can’t afford your bail, you sit in jail while your case winds its way through the system. This can take days, months, even years. And it can be personally disastrous.

Lots of people, on all sides of the criminal legal system, agree this needs to change. But they don’t agree on how it should change.

You’re listening to Unprisoned. I’m Eve Abrams.

This is the Myth Justice is blind – to money. Part 2: the system.

JUDGE JOHNSON: I grew up in the criminal system. I've been in it for almost 50 years.

EVE: Meet retired Judge Calvin Johnson.  He was a criminal court judge in New Orleans for 17 years; in his final years, chief judge. Later, he became the Commissioner of Criminal Justice under former Mayor Mitch Landrieu.

JUDGE JOHNSON: The thought process of the criminal justice system was that making people pay to get out of jail: there was nothing wrong with that. Having people when they pay to get out of jail, to have some of the money used by the court itself to operate: nothing was wrong with that. Making people pay money towards other aspects of the criminal system. There was nothing wrong with that.

EVE: But Johnson doesn’t think that way now. In fact he’s spent the last decade trying to change systems he once participated in – like money bail.

JUDGE JOHNSON: We knew full well that at least some of us, this one of us, knew full well that to change how people paid to get out of jail and for us to get paid as a result was not the way for the system to function, to operate. We knew that when we did it.


EVE: And they did it anyway.

JUDGE JOHNSON: so we could fund ourselves. Otherwise we were going broke. That's a fact.

EVE: And the fact that New Orleans asked its most vulnerable citizens to pay for this?  

JUDGE JOHNSON: It didn’t matter to us.  Keep in mind, see again, you go back to the 70s and the eighties and the early nineties and the fact that the cost was, was passed on to the poorest of the poor did not matter to us.

EVE: Why not?

JUDGE JOHNSON: Cause that just, it wasn't the way we thought about the system. It just wasn't, we didn't think about the system from the perspective of the users of it.

EVE: This is one reason why the system is so hard to change. Because once someone is part of it – just doing their job – they help keep the system in place.

JUDGE JOHNSON: It’s hard when you come into something that, that this is You come into it, what is, and so you accept it.

EVE: But over time, Johnson and other judges started to accept it less. They started looking closer at the people in the system. And thinking about how to help them. Johnson started a drug court. And a mental health court.

The criminal court judges still made poor people help foot the bills, but they were starting to understand how wrong that was.

JUDGE JOHNSON: We knew that when we did it, which is why we did two things. We did that and we did legislation to combine the courts.

EVE: Combine the criminal and civil courts: what some thought was a permanent solution for getting rid of money bail. Make the city operate like the rest of Louisiana.

PEPPI: There’s no real reason why New Orleans should have been different than every other parish in the state.

EVE: This is former Louisiana State Representative Peppi Bruneau

PEPPI: I’m an old man. I’ve lived in New Orleans my entire life. I served in the legislature from 1975 until 2007

EVE: and back in 2006, Peppi Bruneau introduced the bill that would have taken New Orleans civil and criminal courts – and combined them -- into one court.

PEPPI: Senate Bill 645 and House Bill 514

EVE: Money-wise, it was kind of a no-brainer

PEPPI: So you had one court that was generally well off and another one that was about to go bankrupt.

EVE: Calvin Johnson was a criminal court judge, but he knows how the money flows in civil court, often big money -- from corporations paying filing fees.

JUDGE JOHNSON: When you use the civil court, and you file a piece of paper, you’re paying for that filing. And so those filing fees is how that court operates itself. So that court never asked the city for funding. It doesn’t have to.

PEPPI: Whereas the criminal courts were almost bereft of money

JUDGE JOHNSON: So the way to really long term fix this problem is to combine these two courts.  That’s the long term fix to the problem.

EVE: Take New Orleans’ two courts -- one flush, the other broke – and make them one court, like everywhere else in Louisiana.

State legislators agreed: it was the right thing to do.

PEPPI: The bill passed 96 to one in the house. So it wasn't exactly controversial.

JOHNSON: legislation was passed, the act was passed. The, the, the, the structure was in place for this all to take place.

EVE: But

PEPPI: But it never went into effect.

JUDGE JOHNSON: The legislators, some of them who were there when this legislation was passed of course term limits and they left and so legislators who come back don't know much about this and much about the history of it and killed that act that would have called for the unification of the Orleans Court in 2014.

PEPPI: Times change. Legislators change.

JUDGE JOHNSON: C’mon, the people who benefited from the status quo wanted the status quo to continue, and so the status quo has continued.

EVE: Because gradually, over time, four judgeships would have been phased out. Two clerks of court would have become one. And all those folks have staffs, so a bunch of jobs would have, over time, disappeared.  Which would have saved money, and some believed, taken the burden of paying for the criminal system off the backs of poor people.

PEPPI: I think it would have solved the problem.

JUDGE JOHNSON: It was a lost opportunity.

EVE: But some Judges, don’t think so.

KEVA: We fought against that.

EVE: Judge Keva Landrum took the bench in 2008, six years before the courts were supposed to combine. Like her predecessor, Judge Calvin Johnson, Judge Landrum is not a fan of how money affects justice. While we spoke, construction was happening on and off next to her chambers.

KEVA: We knew that there were people who were sitting in jail and who could not afford bond and did not deserve to just sit because they could not afford bond.

EVE: Before becoming a judge, Keva Landrum was a prosecutor. For a few years, the top prosecutor: the District Attorney. Judge Landrum says she was trained to be tough on crime.

KEVA: You multiple bill everyone, you keep everybody in jail. But what we recognize is that didn't work. It didn't work.

EVE: Stiff sentences, packing the jails: it didn’t deter crime. Judge Landrum’s glad things are changing. But as for combining the courts as a funding solution –

KEVA: It is not. I think it is a nightmare. Honestly when we sat down and just started to make people understand there is just no real way to make that work.

EVE: It would have been complicated. For one thing, the two courthouses are over a mile apart. And they have totally separate systems. Also, once they combined, there wouldn’t be civil judges and criminal judges.  There would have just been… judges-- presiding over all the cases.

KEVA: We wouldn't be opposed to receiving money from civil district court. However I see us as experts in criminal law, right? And I think that there is a benefit to that. For me, you know, my passion is this and I wouldn't want to change that one bit. I'm not, not to say that I'm not interested in family law issues, but honestly, I'm not.

EVE: So that step forward... didn’t happen.

PEPPI: You know, I mean, we're still in the 19th century with respect of our court system.

JUDGE JOHNSON: That was a major disappointment for me. Which is why I’m now making this very public saying it to you: is because it still remains a major disappointment for me.

EVE: It’s also a textbook example of why changing the system can be so complicated, and can feel so slow.  Because no one person, or court, or even one branch of government, agrees how that change should go. Each time one tries something, it seems like another one says: not so fast, and then does a new thing to cancel out the first thing.

15 years after Calvin Johnson thought New Orleans Criminal District Court had found a way to take money out of justice, people are still being held in jail because they’re too poor to afford their freedom .

But one thing has changed. Now, the Feds are involved. That’s next time, on Unprisoned.

Unprisoned’s editors are Viki Merick and Katy Reckdahl. Our theme music is by Greg Schatz. A version of this story originally aired on the podcast 70 Million. Thanks to the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation for supporting Season 2 of Unprisoned. Check us out at Unprisoned dot org or WWNO dot org where you can see Cheryl Gerber’s photos and Merle Cooper’s art for these and other episodes. If you haven’t yet subscribed to the podcast, what are you waiting for? Do it.

I’m Eve Abrams. This is Unprisoned.

Stay Connected
Eve Abrams first fell in love with stories listening to her grandmother tell them; it’s been an addiction ever since.