‘We don’t go lower than $2,500 in this court’: Lawsuit alleges unfair bond practices by Orleans magistrate judge

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NEW ORLEANS — A federal class action lawsuit accuses Orleans Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell of refusing to set bonds lower than $2,500 for nonviolent offenses, regardless of the defendant’s ability to pay.

The lawsuit was filed by the nonprofit MacArthur Justice Center on behalf of Adrian Caliste and Brian Gisclair, both of whom are in jail for drug charges and cannot afford to post bond.

According to court documents, Cantrell once told a lawyer when he requested a lower bond that “we don’t go lower than $2,500 in this court.”

At another bond hearing, Catrell told a lawyer “this court never goes lower than $2,500.”

“You don’t have to ask me for that anymore,” Cantrell said.

“Judge Cantrell not only fails to consider the particular circumstances of individual cases, but he threatens lawyers with contempt for seeking lower bonds for their clients or even raising the subject of alternative conditions for release. It’s locking up people for being poor, plain and simple,” said Katie Schwartzmann, Co-Director of the MacArthur Justice Center, which is representing Mr. Caliste.

 

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The suit also raises concern with Cantrell’s practice of using commercial bond companies over cash payments during bond proceedings. A cash payment would be refunded at the conclusion of the defendant’s case. A commercial bail company, however, requires a non-reimbursable fee, a portion of which goes to the court’s General Fund – revenue Cantrell and other judges’ control.

“There is a clear conflict of interest and a violation of due process,” said Eric Foley, attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center office in New Orleans.

The MacArthur Justice Center asserts that forcing arrestees to use bail bond companies raises about $1 million every year for the Magistrate Court general fund.

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“No human being should be kept in a jail cell just because she can’t make a payment, and no judge should have a financial incentive in the cases that the judge decades,” said Alec Karakatsanis from the Civil Rights Corps. “In New Orleans, both of these fundamental constitutional principles are routinely violated every single day.”

Read more here.