If you pass through New Orleans courts, innocent or not, you still have to pay - 4

Feb 17, 2016

The way our criminal justice system works, there’s a significant cost to just being accused of a crime. Innocent or not, one way or another, you still have to pay. Especially if you have a past.

This is a story about a guy named Reuben Cain. He is 40 and owns a car wash in the Tremé. He has kids.

“Seven,” says Cain proudly. “I got one more newborn. My son, Harley. Beautiful.”

He keeps the photos in his truck. “I keep them on the dashboard. I lose my wallet too much.”

Reuben Cain’s truck was parked near Municipal Court. In fact, Cain had just left the courtroom, relieved. His case was finally dismissed. He explained how it all began one night, over four months ago.

“Me and my girlfriend had an argument,” recalls Cain. “She went to check her purse and thought she was missing some items.”

The items were jewelry, and Cain was charged with simple robbery. But once he was in jail, Cain’s girlfriend, Raquel Dawson, told me she found the jewelry. She said she went to both the District Attorney’s office, and to the court, to let them know nothing had been stolen. She even wore the jewelry to show them.

“She came down here to the court building to let the people know she found the items -- that I did not take anything,” says Cain. “They made her sign an affidavit, and once she signed the affidavit, the court still locked me up. They refused to hear it. They still locked me up. Made me pay another bond. I had to pay two bonds.”

For defendants like Reuben Cain, who face low-level, nonviolent charges, bail bonds are supposed to be an exception. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that financial bail can only be imposed to ensure that a defendant like Cain makes it to court. The money is essentially a promise to return.

But in New Orleans, bail bonds are the norm. Once you get arrested in Orleans Parish, in order to be released, more often than not, you have to pay bail through a bail bondsman. So in New Orleans, bail bonds have become a kind of escape hatch -- a way to get out of jail until trial -- if you can afford it.

In the case of Reuben Cain, he could. He paid his $5,500 bond through a bail bondsman, and 18 hours later he was out of jail. The next day, he went back to court to clear everything up.

But when he did, the District Attorney prosecuting the case filed a court motion to increase Cain’s bond, by $5,000, and the judge agreed. So Cain was taken back into custody -- remanded is the legal term. This is not uncommon, says the Orleans Parish Defenders.

In Cain’s case, raising his bond likely had something to do with his past. Cain has a long rap sheet from his earlier years -- a lot of it drug-related charges from the world he was hanging in, as he raised himself on the streets, he says. But around the time he turned 30, Cain decided to turn his life around. He wanted a better situation for himself and for his kids.

Back to his bond story. Cain’s mom’s auntie went back to the bail bondsman, paying him $750 – 15 percent of the new $5,000 bond. This is typical. 13-15 percent of the total financial bond is the cash amount people pay bail bondsmen in Louisiana.

So, Cain’s bail bondsman paid the court his full $5,000 bond, and after the paperwork was done, Reuben Cain was finally free. As for the $750, that is money Cain’s family will never see again. It is money, he says, “I didn’t have, and I explained it to them that this did not happen, and they straight ignored it.”

Remember, this is after Cain’s girlfriend wore the jewelry to court she’d accused him of stealing, and then found that very night. This so-called theft is what his family paid two bonds to deal with.

But paying the bonds was probably worth it. If Cain hadn’t paid the bond to get out of jail, he’d likely still be sitting there.

First, he would have waited for the District Attorney to decide whether or not to press charges. For most felony charges, the DA has 60 days to make this decision; in 2015, on average, they took 39 days.

If the DA had pressed charges, then Cain would have been able to say: “I’m innocent,” or, “I’m guilty.” If he plead innocent, and didn’t pay the bond, he would have sat in jail until his court date -- which typically takes at least a year.

So, all together, that would be 14 months away from his family -- his seven kids, including his new baby boy. 14 months away from his job. 14 months his family would have to do without the money he earns at that job.

So he paid the bond.

“After I bonded out,” recalls Cain, “they dropped the charges the next day and sent me over here.”

Over here is Municipal Court. After Cain bonded out, the District Attorney reviewed his case and changed the charge from simple robbery to theft.

So four months later, he took off work, missed picking up his kids from school, and waited -- for close to three hours -- for his name to be called. It took the judge about 10 minutes of questioning and listening to dismiss the charge.

“Criminal Court had this case at first,” says Cain. “They didn’t want to prosecute it. Well, I feel if you don’t want to prosecute, why send it over here to try to get -- just to catch, ‘see if he’ll slip, see if you can get him; I can’t get him, see if y’all can get him?’ You know, if it’s a waste of time it’s a waste of time.”

Cain whistles as he thinks about how much money he lost being locked up and by having to appear again at Municipal Court.

“It’s a couple of thousands,” of dollars, he estimates. “I give it a couple of thousands. This my third time in court. I missed work, I was in jail twice, one, two, it’s a couple of thousand -- two, three, something like that… and that’s not even including the bond, you know what I mean?”

Approximately 300 people pass through the Municipal Court each day to deal with a legal entanglement. Reuben Cain was just one of them on one afternoon. His case, like every case, is unique, but the way it dragged on and on is not unusual. Mostly, Cain considers himself lucky. He’s back at work, and he and his girlfriend are back together, raising their son.

But Cain is left with a feeling about the criminal justice system that a lot of people have: that it is designed to hurt people, not protect them.

“You know, they feel everybody walk through these doors is a criminal,” he says. “They don’t give you the benefit of the doubt. It’s guilty till proven -- you have to prove yourself innocent, and that shouldn’t be the case.”

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.

Subscribe to Unprisoned on iTunes for more stories about the effects of mass incarceration on our city, and find photographs, links to resources and more on our Facebook page.