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Federal Judge Rules Against Imprisoning Those Who Can't Pay Court Fees

A federal judge in New Orleans ruled on Friday that it is unconstitutional to jail people who fail to pay court-ordered fines and fees associated with their convictions without giving them a chance to plead poverty in a "neutral forum."

U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance rebuked Orleans Parish Criminal District Court judges for deliberately ignoring the financial conditions of a vast majority of criminal offenders before levying additional court-related charges, then locking them up when they don't or can't pay the debts.

"The undisputed evidence in this case establishes that the Judges have a policy or practice of not inquiring into criminal defendants' ability to pay before those individuals are imprisoned for nonpayment of court debts," she wrote.

Additionally, Vance found that it is unconstitutional for judges to order the payment of money that they themselves will spend. She noted an abundance of evidence "further establishes that because of the Judges' institutional conflict of interest, the Judges fail to provide a neutral forum for determination of criminal defendants' ability to pay."

Vance cited the 14th Amendment in her ruling, writing that it "prohibits a state actor from arresting or detaining a criminal defendant solely for failure to pay a court-imposed debt absent a determination of ability to pay."

The decision concludes a three-year lawsuit against the OPCDC and the "debtors' prison" practice, that the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law has argued unfairly impacts the poor which make up nearly all criminal defendants in New Orleans. But it does not indicate how the courts should establish a neutral forum moving forward.

According to a statement of facts included in court documents, an OPCDC judge estimated about 95 percent of criminal convicts in the parish are considered indigent — lacking assets and steady income — and are represented by public defenders.

According to court filings, judges can order fees such as $14 for court transcripts, $100 for court costs, $500 for those convicted of a misdemeanor and $2,500 for those convicted of a felony. In the case of some of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, indigent defendants were asked to pay for drug treatment and drug testing, as well as other debts, as a condition of their probation.

Most of the proceeds of fees collected by the court and individual judges total approximately $1 million a year, the lawsuit states. That money is largely funnelled into a general expenditure fund that the OPCDC taps into for to supplement salaries and benefits for employees, including those hired as debt collectors. Judges are prohibited from drawing from the pool to pay their own salaries but they can apply the money to cover benefits for themselves and their spouses, according to the court documents.

"We believe this judgement will have an effect across the state of Louisiana," Myesha Braden, Director of the Criminal Justice Project at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told NPR. She noted several districts throughout the state have implemented similar practices.

"This is a victory for the people of New Orleans and for those committed to fixing the breaks in the criminal justice system," Kristen Clarke, President and Executive Director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law told NPR in an emailed statement.

She said, "America treats being poor as a crime, disproportionally victimizing people of color. This ruling ensures that people can no longer be thrown in jail in New Orleans Parish for their poverty alone. State officials should take this as their cue begin the necessary work required to end this 'user-pay' justice system, built on the backs of the poor, once and for all."

In December Courthouse News reported:

"Similar lawsuits have been filed across the country in the past two years. The spate of constitutional claims began after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Ensuing claims revealed that Ferguson and nearby towns disproportionately targeted black motorists for citations and fines, and used the money to fund their courts."

In an opinion issued by Vance the same month, the judge acknowledged the "unfortunate financial structure" of the courts, which she wrote, "forces the Judges to generate revenue from the criminal defendants they sentence. Of course, the Judges would not be in this predicament if the state and city adequately funded OPCDC."

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Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.
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