On any given morning, some 20 people in orange jumpsuits sit in a pen in a courtroom at the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court in New Orleans, Louisiana. Most rest their handcuffed wrists in their laps; a chain connects the cuffs to shackles around their waists and ankles. They’ve been arrested for allegedly committing a range of offenses, from possessing drugs to stealing a girlfriend’s car to strangling a domestic partner. But at this point, none of these people have been formally charged with a crime, let alone convicted of one. As far as the law is concerned, they’re innocent.
As they make their appearance before Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell, each defendant gets approximately three minutes to meet with a public defender, if they’re found poor enough to need one, and explain why the charges they’re facing should be dismissed or, barring that, why their bail should be low. This meeting takes place in a Plexiglas booth that resembles a bank teller’s window, with the public defender, who serves every indigent person in court that day—in New Orleans, over 85 percent of criminal defendants are represented by a government-appointed lawyer— separated from her clients by a wall of clear plastic.
As if calling out orders at a deli counter, Judge Cantrell reads through the case numbers one by one. The defendants aren’t allowed to come out of the pen and speak for themselves when their case comes up. Instead, after the district attorney reads through the police report and makes his argument for probable cause, it’s up to the public defender to try to get the case thrown out, ask for a reasonable bail, or argue that the defendant should be released without having to pay.
What constitutes reasonable bail is entirely at Judge Cantrell’s discretion. The man who supposedly threatened to kill his brother, even though his brother wasn’t the one who called the police? Cantrell sets a $2,500 bail. The young man accused of having methamphetamine, prescription drugs, and drug paraphernalia in his backpack? Twenty-five hundred dollars for each count, despite the public defender’s request that he simply be released. Cantrell sets a $10,000 bail for a man accused of threatening people with some sort of shiny object—and whose only income is a monthly $700 disability check. A 12th grader hauled in by police for firing a gun, on the basis of seemingly sketchy evidence, receives a $30,000 bail despite having no prior arrests. When the public defender argues that one particular $10,000 bail is excessive, Cantrell responds simply, “Your objection is noted.” When a defendant tries to speak on his own behalf, the judge instructs him, “Sir, don’t say anything.” Each person’s case takes less than five minutes. Then the court’s business moves on.
Cantrell has acknowledged that he refuses to set bail lower than $2,500, no matter the facts of a case. “We don’t go any lower than $2,500 in this court,” he told one defense attorney in 2016. When attorneys object to this practice, Cantrell sometimes threatens to hold them in contempt of court—for which they could serve jail time themselves. In 2015, 87 percent of defendants in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court had to post bail in order to be released. Of the defendants who could afford to post bail, 97 percent used a bail bondsman. New Orleans bondsmen earned $4.7 million in payments from defendants that year.