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Debtors’ court violates constitution, judge rules

2nd January 2018   ·   0 Comments

By Della Hasselle
Contributing Writer

A federal district judge has ruled that judges in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court have routinely violated the constitutional rights of Louisiana’s indigent individuals in implementing a so-called “user pay” system mandated by state law.

According to U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance, the system fails to consider a person’s ability to pay court debts before jailing them.

Vance also ruled that the state judges have an inherent conflict of interest in determining whether low-income defendants are able to pay fines and fees associated with proceedings, since the judges rely on those fines and fees to help bolster the court’s budget. debtors-prison-image--small

Defendants have accused the courts of running a system equivalent to a “debtors’ prison.”

“The judges’ adjudication of plaintiffs’ ability to pay those fines and fees offends due process,” Vance wrote in a 79-page ruling on Dec. 13.

The lawsuit was brought before Vance in September 2015, on behalf of six plaintiffs who said they had been unconstitutionally jailed for owing court debts.

A Vera Institute of Justice report found that year, 536 people had been jailed because they couldn’t pay court fines and fees or because they had missed court dates involving such payments.

Attorney Celeste Brustowicz, a lawyer for the court’s 13 elected judges, argued during a federal hearing earlier in the year that the lawsuit should be quashed because the practices it named were no longer in place.

The plaintiffs were no longer being jailed for not being able to pay fines and their court debts had been forgiven, Brustowicz said then. By June, the judges and their lawyers said more than 4,000 arrest warrants had been cancelled and $1 million in fees had been forgiven.

Mateya Kelley, of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, argued, however, for Vance to make the law clear regarding defendants’ Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process and equal protection by issuing a judgment, according to multiple reports.

While advocates have lauded Vance’s decision, the ruling could ultimately create financial turmoil for the court.

The judges have in the past warned members of New Orleans City Council that the budget would be severely impacted if they lose that source of revenue, as much of it comes from those fines and fees imposed upon criminal defendants.

Among those who pay the fees are people who get representation from public defenders because they’re considered to be too poor to hire private lawyers.

The fines and fees “probably represents fully a fourth of the monies that we need to be operational,” Judge Franz Zibilich has said, adding that the funds will have to “come from someplace.”

However, Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee, said the Louisiana system “undermines public trust and confidence in our justice system.”

It also punished the poor and perpetuated an imbalance in the criminal legal system, as well disproportionately affected racial minorities, she said.

“The Orleans Parish Criminal District Court epitomizes the criminalization of poverty and the corrupting effect of financial incentives on our local courts,” Clarke said. “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.”

Alec Karakatsanis, founder and executive director of Civil Rights Corps, agreed.

“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,” he said.

The state judges have acknowledged that 95 percent of arrestees before them cannot afford a lawyer, according to the Civil Rights Corps, meaning that a large majority of defendants are further punished simply because they cannot pay court-ordered debts.

Vance did say that the conflict of interest exists “by no fault of judges themselves,” but because of the way the system was created.

“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,” Vance said. “Of course, the Judges would not be in this predicament if the state and city adequately funded OPCDC.”

The judges could appeal the ruling to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, and ask the City of New Orleans and the Louisiana Legislature for more money to help fill any funding gap caused by the ruling.

This article originally published in the January, 2018 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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