Over the next several months, Unprisoned will look at how mass incarceration affects New Orleans — how people are doing time outside. We start at New Orleans Municipal Court with a vivid portrait of this front door to the criminal justice system.
The United States has five percent of the world’s population, but over 25 percent of its prisoners. We imprison more people than any other country on the planet. And of all the states, Louisiana imprisons the most.
In the last 10 years, New Orleans has cut its jail population by almost 60 percent, but the city still has one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation.
A block from the Criminal Court, on the corner of Tulane Avenue and South Broad Street, is the City of New Orleans Municipal Court. For many people in New Orleans, this lesser-known court is the gateway to the criminal justice system.
“We handle more cases in Orleans Parish Municipal Court — criminal cases — than any other court in the state of Louisiana,” says Judge Sean Early. He’s been a Municipal Court Judge for 22 years in Orleans Parish. Before that, he was a public defender.
Judge Early says Municipal Court handles around 30,000-40,000 cases a year. That’s like if one in every 10 people in Orleans Parish had a case.
But of course it doesn’t work that way. Some people have multiple cases, and more often than not, they get complicated. Regardless of whether the defendant can pay, there are fines and fees associated with just about every case — court costs, diversion fees — and if someone doesn’t come to court to pay them, or come to court period, they’re found in contempt, which is another $200 fine, plus a warrant is issued for their arrest.
These warrants, called "attachments," are the number-one way people get caught up in the system. About half the cases that go through Municipal Court have one or more attachments.
“And they’re sitting in a computer,” says Early. “They’re sitting in court; they’re not getting resolved.” It puts a strain on the system, starting with the New Orleans Police Department, because every time officers stop someone, “they got to run their name, and that’s man-hours,” Early says. “And then bring them down to Orleans Parish Prison and book ‘em. And then they come to our court within a couple of days, and then the city’s paying for the cost to house these people.”
House them in jail, while they wait to see a judge. So it’s expensive and time consuming, and it’s not just the system that gets bogged down; it’s people. Municipal Court is where defendants lose control: of their money, their time and often their freedom.
Take Dwayne Brown. He’s 26 and a manager at a McDonald’s. He has four kids. Back in 2013, he got in a fight with his girlfriend.
“I kicked her door in,” confesses Brown. “Because I’m like: you gonna let me see my daughter. Like, I literally kicked her door in.”
The police happened to be driving by. They arrested Brown and took him to jail. In court, he was placed under a protective order, which is like a restraining order, to stay away from his girlfriend and his daughter.
“That’s when I took the anger management class,” says Brown. “I paid… I had to pay $30 every Wednesday.”
Brown finishes the class and gets his certificate. The next year, he gets pulled over for an obscured license plate. When the police run his name, they find an attachment for violation of protective orders on his prior case — which Brown still doesn’t understand. The system is really unclear, and the Public Defenders Office says it’s common for their clients to be confused.
Regardless, Brown gets booked into jail, and bonds out, paying $250. His trial is rescheduled three times, and he misses the last court date because he was working. So that’s another attachment, and he ends up in jail for 10 days with more fines and fees… and on it goes. So far he’s spent close to $2,000 and 12 days in jail, losing work time.
“I’m the only one working; I’m the only one paying bills, so therefore I really don’t see no money, and my car just stopped working, and I only get paid two times a month,” says Brown. “And therefore, I gotta pay light bills, pay rent. Make sure my son got Pampers and milk. I’m in the house with five kids, and that’s where my money goes. And like when I went to jail, I done missed out on 10 days of work, just sitting in jail behind that.”
Municipal Court doesn’t deal with violent crimes like rape, robbery, or murder. This high volume court — the highest in Louisiana — handles only criminal misdemeanor cases, carrying jail sentences of up to six months or less. They’re not high stakes, but the stakes are high for the people involved.
Assaults and batteries, as well as domestic violence cases, like Dwayne Brown’s, are some of the most serious in Municipal Court. Most of the cases the court sees are: marijuana charges, obstruction of a sidewalk (which is, basically, sitting on a sidewalk), public drunkenness, illegally carrying of a gun, shoplifting, unlicensed dog cases, lewd conduct (like if you’re caught urinating in public), aggressive panhandling, and spitting on the sidewalk.
“A lot of trespassing charges and disturbing the peace,” adds Judge Sean Early. He says he sees a lot of those kinds of cases every day, and they make up a good chunk of his entire day.
There are two sections of Municipal Court in the morning, and two in the afternoon, and they’re packed. Between the four sections, the courts see something like 200-400 cases every day, and in each courtroom, several of them are going at the same time. There are clerks and City Attorneys, district attorneys and public defenders, and the judge — all talking to different people dealing with different cases. Some, like the public defenders, are in constant motion, running between their clients, the judges’ bench, and the microphone where they make their arguments.
It’s understandable how defendants might be confused about how to resolve their cases, or even how or when their cases will be heard, as they sit there waiting — often missing work — for hours.
There’s no recording allowed in the courtroom, but Jacob McCarty, the Client Support Administrator for the Orleans Parish Defenders, says it sounds like, “a bunch of people chattering at once, who are sitting out in the audience waiting on their case to be called, and the clerk who is calling names and case numbers: ‘Case #118 John Doe v. the City of New Orleans.’”
“And then a cop, and he’ll be like: ‘Quiet, Quiet in the courtroom,’”adds Tess Kilbane Myers, a client advocate at Municipal Court.
“’Sir, turn your phone off,’” mimics McCarty. “And then the judge maybe every now and then shouting, ‘Quiet in the court,’ and then maybe it silences for a little bit, and then there’s an argument on the record. I mean, it’s an endless onslaught of noise in there, and nobody’s identifying who they are.”
“It’s total mayhem,” says Kilbane Myers.
She says the court is kind of set up like a church with benches, except where the altar normally is, there’s a judge, and instead of a choir, there is a boxed-in area where the inmates sit.
“They’re all in their orange jumpsuits and their chains,” Kilbane Myers describes. “They’re cuffed at their ankles. Today I had a client who was 34 weeks pregnant, so they couldn’t fit the handcuffs around her ankles, so she was cuffed at her hands.”
Remember, this is Municipal Court.
“The Sheriff’s Office has to transport them from the jail to the courthouse, and so when they walk in, you hear the clink and the clank. The jingle of the chains,” she says.
“You walk into the courtroom and you’re just — you know, I’ve been doing this for a while, and it still catches your breath. There are so many people of color here,” says Public Defender Danny Engelberg. “And yet I know that the city is not made up of 90 percent African Americans, so why is it that so many of the people in orange are African American?”
Engelberg isn’t the only one noticing how many black people are in Municipal Court, or in any court. It’s hard to miss.
I asked people leaving Municipal Court: Who was sitting in court waiting to see the judge? What do they look like?
- “Mostly African Americans, like me.”
- “It’s mostly, I could say 85 percent black. That’s all you see in orange in the box back there, who locked up.”
- “Who’s waiting? Mostly black. I mean, there was a couple of white people in there, but it’s mostly black people.”
- “I think it was about 85 percent African Americans that was sitting there. Normally, you know when I go to court or traffic or something, that’s pretty much how it be.”
“One of the problems of our court systems in New Orleans — where the great majority, upwards of 90 percent, of the people we incarcerate in our local jail are black people, mostly poor black people — is they rely too heavily on funds generated by people who are arrested, prosecuted, detained and convicted,” says Jon Wool, the director of the Vera Institute of Justice in New Orleans.
Wool says this amounts to a terribly costly transfer of wealth from our poorest communities to our criminal justice system.
“So this means that the financial basis of release and detention is a revenue generator, and the result is that we detain lots of people who are not a threat to society, but because they’re poor,” he says.
Wool says because our criminal justice system is largely funded by the people churned through it, the system is driven to become ever bigger in order to pay for itself — far bigger and more complicated than necessary to do what it is supposed to do: make our communities safe.
Join us next time as Municipal Court holds court in one of New Orleans’ homeless shelters.
Unprisoned: Stories From The System is produced by Eve Abrams and brought to you by New Orleans Public Radio and Finding America, a national initiative produced by AIR, the Association of Independents in Radio, Incorporated, and with financial support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Wyncote Foundation, the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.