A Louisiana judge accused of operating a ‘modern day debtors prison’ agreed Monday to end the practice of incarcerating individuals who can’t afford to pay fees.
The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit against Bogalusa Judge Robert J. Black and the Bogalusa City Court June 21, alleging Black regularly ordered defendants to jail for failing to pay fines for “minor traffic and misdemeanor offenses” without inquiring as to the cause of nonpayment.
The suit said the City Court was maintained “off the backs of the poor,” depending heavily on court costs and fees collected from offenders to stay afloat.
“The City Court routinely covers at least 15 percent of its expenditures through income it generates from criminal defendants,” the claim read. “This structural conflict of interest creates an incentive for Defendant Black to find individuals guilty and to coerce payment through the threat of jail. Without this money, the City Court could not function.”
SPLC attorneys noted Black’s use of an unauthorized $50 “extension fee” as an option for those who could not pay immediately to avoid jail time.
In 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to send a defendant to jail for his or her inability to pay a court fine upfront under the basis of the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
CBS News reports Judge Black agreed to stop the incarcerations and extension fees for 75 days, allowing both parties more time to reach a permanent agreement.
“The Court appreciates the concerns of the Southern Poverty Law Center and looks forward to discussions with the plaintiffs’ attorneys,” the judge wrote in a statement. “In the meantime, members of the public are invited to attend our misdemeanor court proceedings every Monday from 9:30 am until late afternoon and witness for themselves that each case is judged on an individual basis.”
State and local courts are increasingly relying on fees and fines to supplement their shrinking budgets. Civil rights groups argue the practice criminalizes poverty and forces those who are already at an extreme economic disadvantage to forego basic necessities in order to raise the funds.
Imprisonment has huge ramifications for the individuals and their families. Just a few days’ absence from work can result in termination, which is devastating for any household, let alone low-income ones. The loss of homes, vehicles and children, in the case of parents, are additional consequences many face.
In August 2015, the American Civil Liberties Union identified Louisiana as one of the worst offenders. The report found that municipal and traffic court judges routinely issued warrants and added contempt or failure to appear charges to defendants who failed to pay fines on time or missed court dates. The fees continue to balloon, making the possibility of ever paying off the debt impossible.
The ACLU recommended mandatory indigence hearings for those unable to pay, considering alternatives to fines, such as community service and the creation of sliding scale fines that would ensure that a fine is proportional to the individual’s income.
“Poverty is not illegal—what is illegal is imprisoning the poor for their inability to pay. It is past time for Louisiana’s courts to abolish debtors prisons in more than just name, and move forward into a more just future,” the report concluded.