Judge Finds New Orleans Debtors’ Prison Unconstitutional

NEW ORLEANS (CN) — By charging poor prisoners fees they are unable to pay and relying on those fees to fund the court and pay salaries, Orleans Parish Criminal District Court is violating the Constitution, a federal judge ruled this week.

Criminal court judges do not even look into whether people facing criminal convictions can pay fees: evidence enough that there is a problem, U.S. District Judge Sarah S. Vance said Wednesday in a 79-page ruling.

“It is undisputed that the Judges provide no ability-to-pay inquiry, nor any further procedural safeguards, to indigent criminal defendants who are subject to imprisonment for failure to pay court debts,” Vance wrote.

Under Bearden v. Georgia (1983) and Turner v. Rogers (2011), criminal court judges are obligated to inquire into plaintiffs’ ability to pay before their imprisonment, Vance said.

“This inquiry must involve certain procedural safeguards, especially notice to the individual of the importance of ability to pay and an opportunity to be heard on the issue. If an individual is unable to pay, then the judges must consider alternative measures before imprisoning the individual.”

Approximately $1 million from various fines and fees goes into the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court budget each year. Vance wrote: “This funding structure puts the judges in the difficult position of not having sufficient funds to staff their offices unless they impose and collect sufficient fines and fees from a largely indigent population of criminal defendants. “

Judges’ powers over fines and fee revenue creates a conflict of interest when the judges determine, or are supposed to determine, whether defendants are able to pay the fines and fees that were imposed at sentencing, Vance said.

“The judges therefore have an institutional incentive to find that criminal defendants are able to pay fines and fees.”

Vance said that criminal court judges’ “dual role, as adjudicators who determine ability to pay and as managers of the OPCDC [Orleans Parish Criminal District Court] budget, offer a possible temptation to find that indigent criminal defendants are able to pay their court debts.”

She added: “The judges’ practice of failing to inquire into ability to pay is itself indicative of their conflict of interest.”

Vance cited a “dramatic increase” in assessments for indigent transcript fees from 2012 to 2013 — from $9,841.50 to $271,581.75, or 2,750 percent — which came when the court shifted what the fees would be used for.

In 2012, the court shifted indigent fees from a restricted fund that could not be used except for very particular circumstances into a judicial expense fund, used to pay the salaries of court employees other than judges and to fund other court expenses.

“Defendants insist that they do not benefit from this revenue, which solely aids indigent criminal defendants. This assertion is undercut by financial statements for the Judicial Expense Fund, which show expenditures on transcripts of $0 in 2013 and 2015 and $7,044 in 2014,” Vance found. (Citations omitted.)

“Further evidence of an actual conflict of interest is that the judges have sought ways to increase collections from criminal defendants,” the judge continued. “At a City Council hearing in July 2014, a judge explained that the judges were sharing ideas ‘in an effort to increase [their] collection’ of fines and fees.”

Judges created the collections department in the 1980s to facilitate collections.

“At least from 2013 through 2015, the amount of fees (which go entirely to OPCDC) imposed by the judges far exceeded the amount of fines (only half of which goes to OPCDC),” Vance wrote. (Parentheses in original.) “This suggests that the Judges prefer to impose fees for OPCDC rather than share fines with the DA.”

Vance noted that fines and fees provide roughly 10 percent of the Orleans Parish Criminal Defense Court budget, and one-quarter of the judicial expense fund.

Judges in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court spend most of the judicial expense fund, which is funded through criminal fees, on salaries and employee benefits.

“OPCDC judges acknowledge that 95 percent of arrestees before them cannot afford a lawyer,” the Lawyer’s Committee’s Criminal Justice Project said in a statement. “Yet OPCDC judges routinely impose court fines, fees and costs without taking into account individuals’ ability to pay, in violation of a longstanding law forbidding the incarceration of people because they are poor. This creates a vicious cycle in which indigent defendants are further punished for their inability to pay court-ordered debts.”

Lawyer’s Committee president Kristen Clarke said in a statement: “The Orleans Parish Criminal District Court epitomizes the criminalization of poverty and the corrupting effect of financial incentives on our local courts. The resurgence of debtors’ prisons across our country entraps poor people, too many of whom are African American or minority, in a cycle of escalating debt and unnecessary incarceration. This cycle undermines public trust and confidence in our justice system.”

Orleans Parish criminal court judges acknowledge that 95 percent of arrestees before them cannot afford a lawyer. Yet the judges routinely impose fines, court fees and costs without taking into account individuals’ ability to pay, in violation of a longstanding law forbidding the incarceration of people because they are poor. This creates a vicious cycle in which indigent defendants are further punished for their inability to pay court-ordered debts, the Lawyers’ Committee said.

“No human being should be put in a cage because she cannot make a monetary payment, and no local legal system should depend on convicting people and extorting money from them just to make enough money to keep the courts open,” said Alec Karakatsanis, founder and executive director of the Civil Rights Corps.

Mateya Kelley, an attorney with the Lawyers’ Committee’s Criminal Justice Project, who presented arguments on the motion, concluded: “Forcing courts to fund themselves by assessing and collecting fees on largely indigent defendants, as Louisiana does, forecloses impartial justice and delegitimizes the ‘justice’ system. It can ruin lives. This ruling is a good first step toward restoring due process in Orleans’ criminal court and a sends a message of much-needed change in courts across the country.”

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.

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