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New Orleans Parish Court System has Unconstitutional Funding Practices

by David M. Reutter

In December 2017, a Louisiana federal district court declared that the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court (OPCDC) had violated the constitutional rights of defendants by jailing them for failure to pay fines and fees without first determining their ability to pay. The federal court further found the parish judges had an inherent conflict of interest in determining whether defendants can pay the fines and fees, which comprise a large portion of the OPCDC’s budget.

The suit was filed on behalf of former criminal defendants who pleaded guilty and were ordered to pay fines and fees as part of their sentence. All were poor and had been arrested for failure to pay. In most cases, they spent several days or weeks in jail before being released, which came only after a payment or promise of payment was made to the court.

The OPCDC funds its court operations and staff payroll from a Judicial Expense Fund; it had annual revenue of $4 million from 2012 through 2015. Around half the revenue came from government entities while the remainder was from bail-bond fees, fines and court-ordered fees.

To collect the fines and fees imposed on defendants, the OPCDC created a Collection Department that was granted the power to issue arrest warrants for people who failed to pay. Shortly after the lawsuit was filed, OPCDC judges revoked that power, recalled all active warrants for fines and fees, and wrote off $1 million in court debts. Each judge now “handles collection-related matters on their respective dockets.”

The federal court found that “at no point – not at sentencing, nor before imprisonment, nor at a hearing while they were imprisoned – did a judge inquire into [a criminal defendant’s] ability to pay.” In fact, the OPCDC exhibited a complete disregard as to a defendant’s poverty.

One of the plaintiffs in the case, Ashton Brown, was arrested for failure to pay fines or fees. Two weeks later, when he went before a judge, he was refused release despite the fact that he lived in poverty and struggled to support himself and his nine-month-old daughter. He was freed only after his grandmother paid $100 to the OPCDC. Plaintiff Alana Cain was released after promising to make a payment to the court upon her release.

“This evidence suggests that the judges do not release criminal defendants imprisoned for failure to pay court debts without a payment or a promise of payment,” the federal district court wrote. That, it declared, was unconstitutional.

The funding of the Judicial Expense Fund through fines and fees “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,” the federal court added. That gave the judges “an institutional incentive to find that criminal defendants are able to pay fines and fees.”

While the nature of the OPCDC’s funding was due to an “inherent defect in the legislative framework” and not the fault of the parish judges, the federal court nonetheless found the judges had an inherent conflict of interest with respect to determining defendants’ ability to pay court-ordered fees and fines.

The federal court granted in part the plaintiffs’ summary judgment motion and certified the class on August 2, 2018. One class and a subclass were certified, consisting of all defendants who owe or will incur court debts arising from cases adjudicated in the OPCDC, and all class members whose debts are owed, in whole or part, to the OPCDC’s Judicial Expense Fund. The court then issued a declaratory judgment, finding the OPCDC’s policy or practice of not inquiring into the ability of defendants to pay before they are imprisoned for nonpayment of fines or fees was unconstitutional, and the OPCDC’s failure “to provide a neutral forum for determination of such persons’ ability to pay” also was unconstitutional. See: Cain v. City of New Orleans, U.S.D.C. (E.D. La.), Case No. 2:15-cv-04479-SSV-JCW.

“This is a victory for the people of New Orleans and for those committed to fixing the breaks in the criminal justice system,” said Kristen Clarke, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “America treats being poor as a crime, disproportionately victimizing people of color. This ruling ensures that people can no longer be thrown in jail in Orleans Parish for their poverty alone,” she added.

The ruling in this case was the most recent in a series of lawsuits challenging debtors’ prisons in the United States, where people are jailed solely due to their inability to pay court-ordered fines, fees or other costs. 

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Related legal case

Cain v. City of New Orleans