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Pact OK’d to prevent jailing of defendants too poor for bail

June 14, 2019

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A state court official in New Orleans has agreed to take steps to make sure defendants in criminal cases aren’t jailed simply because they cannot afford bail.

The agreement is detailed in a federal court order filed Thursday involving Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell and plaintiffs who accused Cantrell of violating an earlier federal judgment regarding low-income defendants.

As a magistrate judge in the criminal district court in New Orleans, Cantrell sets bail for people arrested on various state charges. The agreement details required procedures for making sure defendants have access to a lawyer, determining whether a defendant can afford bail and whether the defendant is a flight risk or poses a danger when alternatives to bail are considered.

U.S. District Judge Eldon Fallon issued Thursday’s order detailing the agreement and closing the case against Cantrell.

Fallon had issued a judgment in August 2018 saying Cantrell failed to make inquiries into defendants’ ability to pay or alternatives to bail for pre-trial releases of defendants.

Attorneys for the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center and the Civil Rights Corps said in a March filing that Cantrell had not altered his practices.

Examples cited in the motion include Cantrell’s setting of a $15,000 bond for a man who, according to state court records, was charged with aggravated battery. Attorneys said in their motion that the man was homeless and there was no record of him failing to show up for court appearances. The March motion also said bail was set at $3,500 for a mother supporting herself and four children on a $10 per hour wage, even though she had no prior criminal history before facing an aggravated battery charge.

MacArthur center lawyer Eric Foley called the agreement a victory Friday in a news release.

“Our clients are pretrial arrestees who are presumed innocent,” Foley said. “They should never be held in jail just because they can’t afford to pay an arbitrary amount of money.”

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