Louisiana’s Debtors Prison Found to be Unconstitutional!

It’s 2017, and we would hope that debtors prisons would have been abolished around the world, but here at Orleans Parish Criminal District Court, that’s not so. U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance has stated, So long as the judges control and heavily rely on fines and fees revenue…the judges’ adjudication of plaintiffs’ ability to pay those fines and fees offends due process.  This is a landmark ruling, way overdue.

This court case began 2 years ago when a few New Orleanians were jailed after failing to pay fines imposed for criminal convictions. Other plaintiffs were jailed for days or longer without ever receiving a hearing on their ability to pay. The stage is set to possibly end the “user pays” system that New Orleans utilizes to fund its criminal courts.

This would leave a large hole in the Criminal Court operating budget. Without an immediate influx of cash, that hole could become unmanageable quickly.

Roughly $1 million/year is spent by Criminal District Court judges that comes from fines and fees that are foisted upon those found guilty to round out their budget. Most of these defendants are too poor to hire an attorney, relying instead upon the overworked public defenders.

The judges can appeal the ruling to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. What is under attack here is the method of payment that has been in place for decades. The judges may have to before the City Council or legislature for some funding.

                                                                             U.S. District Judge Sara Vance

According to Vance, This conflict of interest exists by no fault of the judges themselves. It is the unfortunate result of the financing structure, established by governing law, that forces the judges to generate revenue from the criminal defendants they sentence.

Understandably, the judges would like to see this lawsuit go away. But they have not done enough to show institutional change, he said.  He also said the judges’ corrective efforts are so riddled with exceptions and omissions as to cast doubt on the sincerity of their actions. 

Alec Karakatsanis, the executive director of Civil Rights Corps, a Washington, D.C. based nonprofit law firm which helped file the landmark suit says, It’s a monumental ruling.  For so long, the court system’s been operating in New Orleans in violation of the most basic principles of justice and human dignity.




~ by neworleansmusicman on December 15, 2017.

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