New Orleans Courts Said to Run Debtors’ Prison

     NEW ORLEANS (CN) – A federal class action claims poor city residents are routinely arrested and held in jail, sometimes for months, until they pay exorbitant court fees that ultimately fund what amounts to a private kitty for judicial officials.
     “Despite longstanding Supreme Court precedent that the government cannot imprison people just because they are poor, New Orleans officials routinely use jail and threats of jail to collect court debts from thousands of the City’s poorest people,” the class of at least five plaintiffs says.
     “The result is an illegal, unconstitutional and unjust modern debtors’ prison,” says the complaint, which was filed September 17.
     The class says court fees are imposed without the court first asking whether the person can pay, and that all officials involved in the criminal justice system benefit from the fees.
     “To make matters worse, officials in the Collections Department of the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court have admitted under oath that they have been issuing arrest warrants for unpaid debts by signing themselves the signatures of judges without first presenting any information to the judge or even notifying the judge,” the lawsuit says.
     “The environment of threats of jail and actual jailing creates a culture of fear among indigent people and their families, who borrow money at high interest rates, divert money from food for their children, and cash their family members’ disability checks in a desperate attempt to pay the Collections Department to avoid infinite confinement,” according to the class action.
     “When an indigent defendant appears in court, every government entity – the jailer who brought her there, the lawyer assigned to represent her, the prosecutor arguing against her, and the judge ruling in her case – funds its own budget in part based on the decisions made in her case. Each of them takes a percentage of every money bond that is required for release after arrest. Each also partially funds their own budgets through fees that are assessed only upon conviction,” the plaintiffs claim.
     Poverty is widespread in New Orleans, with an estimated 104,900 people, or more than a quarter of the population, living below the poverty line. One in two adult black men in New Orleans, for instance, are unemployed and receive no unemployment compensation.
     The lawsuit says the defendants know that most people appearing before them are impoverished because 85 percent of the people appearing in Orleans Parish Criminal Court have been determined to be indigent for purposes of appointment of the Orleans Public Defenders.
     High court debts increase jail return rates, blocks people being released from jail from being able to start fresh and “devastates families who have to make hard choices about debt payments or food, inhibits mental health care, and makes it harder for people to obtain housing and employment,” the class action says.
     The lawsuit then goes on to describe the plaintiffs’ allegations in detail.
     According to Alana Cain, 26, a warrant was issued for her arrest after she called the collections department after many months of payments to explain she could not make the next $100 monthly fee payment she was assessed following a felony burglary charge.
     Cain says was told not to bother to pay anything less than $50.
     A short time later, Cain says, she was pulled over while driving with a friend on her way back from the bank, and was arrested on the warrant that had been issued for the missed fee payment. Despite having $80 on her that she asked to put toward her fine, she was assessed a $20,000 secured bond, and told to have her family contact the court to find out her court date.
     Because there were no free phones available for inmate use, Cain was unable to contact anyone in her family, the complaint says. After several days, another prisoner finally let Cain use a pre-paid phone card to contact her family.
     Cain says she was ultimately able to reach her sister, who then was able to set up a court date. Cain says when she appeared before the judge, she was told that if she ever missed a payment again she would have to spend 90 days in jail.
     According to the complaint, Cain has no job and has had trouble finding one because she is a felon.
     Plaintiff Ashton Brown, 21, claims he was held for several months in jail for not being able to pay his court costs. Meanwhile, he had a new baby at home to support. Brown says his having no job and no money, when he finally appeared in court, he was told he needed to pay at least $100 before he would be set free.
     In another case, plaintiff Reynaud Variste claims his family’s home was stormed by officers armed with assault rifles and military gear because he failed to pay $1,600 court fees. Variste says he was asleep at the time of the raid and was awakened by the commotion. However, he says, he was told not to worry too much about the raid because it was just over unpaid fees.
     Twenty-one year old Reynajia Variste, though pregnant, was also jailed for unpaid court fees, the lawsuit says.
     The court automatically imposes a $20,000 money bond on anyone arrested and imprisoned for unpaid court fees, the complaint says.
     “This bond, like every pre-trial money bond issued in New Orleans, partially funds the District Attorney, the Public Defender, the Sheriff, and the Judicial Expense Fund,” the plaintiffs say.
     The judges collect over $1 million from these bond fees alone, and place the money into the judicial expense fund, where they are allocated to pay for portions of the courts’ operating budget. This practice goes on, the lawsuit says, even though such funding allocations have been found unconstitutional.
     Because the court fees pay the bills of practically everyone involved in the criminal justice system, defendants have developed a practice of advocating for high bonds and fees without any “meaningful inquiry into a person’s ability to pay,” the lawsuit says.
     As a result, many people languish in jail every year simply because they are unable to pay their court fees, the plaintiffs say.
     One of the fees assessed upon conviction is the “judicial expense fund” of the Orleans Parish Criminal Court, according to the lawsuit.
     “The judges of the court manage the fund and court operations in an administrative capacity but refused for many years to disclose the financial details of the account or to permit public auditing,” the class says.
     For many years, the lawsuit says, the judges have been using part of the money collected to pay for private insurance benefits for themselves and their spouses that the state doesn’t provide.
     Defendants are the City of New Orleans, Orleans Parish Criminal District Court, Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman, the clerk of court and criminal judges.
     Plaintiffs seek a declaration that jailing people over unpaid fines in unconstitutional, as are the $20,000 bonds they were assessed upon incarceration, and that their civil rights have been violated.
     A spokesman for the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court did not return requests for comment.
     The lawsuit was filed by lawyers headed by William Quigly from Equal Justice Under Law of New Orleans.

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