A federal judge in Louisiana delivered a major victory to advocates of the poor who have argued that criminal justice systems across the nation exploit folks who can least afford to pay excessive court fees and fines.
U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance ordered courts in Orleans Parish on Friday to allow a “neutral forum” to determine whether defendants can afford to pay court fees before sending them to jail for nonpayment, the Advocate reported, bringing an end to a three-year legal battle over the parish’s “debtors’ prison” system.
This comes as Attorney General Jeff Sessions reverses progress made under President Barack Obama‘s administration toward ending criminal justice systems that trap poor people in cycles of fines, debt and jail.
“This is a victory for the people of New Orleans and for those committed to fixing the breaks in the criminal justice system. 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,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
At least 80 percent of criminal defendants in Orleans Parish are poor and depend on public defenders to work on their case, according to the newspaper. As with many other municipal court systems nationwide, judges in the parish typically issue warrants for defendants who fail to pay court fees and fines that accumulate interest when they go unpaid. All too often, low-income defendants end up in jail or authorities confiscate their property for nonpayment—pushing them deeper into poverty.
In her ruling, Vance pointed out the obvious “institutional conflict of interest” in Orleans Parish. Proceeds from the fines and fees go directly to the court’s Judicial Expense Fund, which the judges control and accumulate to about $1 million annually. At the same, the judges also get to determine whether defendants can afford to pay, and in nearly every case the parish’s 13 judges never bother to inquire.