New Orleans courts unfair to poor defendants, reports say

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New Orleans often spends more money to imprison people for unpaid fines than is ultimately recouped from the fines themselves, according to two reports released by criminal justice reform advocates today.

The reports, published by the American Civil Liberties Union in New York and the Brennan Center for Justice, a project of the New York University School of Law, take aim at what they describe as the effective resurgence of “debtors’ prisons” across the country, through the imprisonment of low-level offenders for inability to pay fines, fees, and costs.

Local judges took exception to the report, both in its contents – some of which they say are inaccurate – and in the way it was researched with no input from the courts.

The researchers studied several states, including Louisiana. They say courts are routinely disregarding a 1983 Supreme Court decision, which said imprisoning those on parole who are unable to pay their court debts, despite making bona fide efforts, violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

For poor defendants, the inability to pay “leads to more fees and an endless cycle of debt,” the Brennan Center report says.

The reports contain many examples of unusual fees, fines, and costs levied in Louisiana courts. In Orleans Parish, defendants are even charged $40 for the appointment of a public defender, the ACLU report says. Criminal District Court here charges defendants  $100 to enter into a payment plan for any fines, the Brennan Center report says.

“Day after day, indigent defendants are imprisoned for failing to pay legal debts they can never hope to manage,” reads the introduction to the ACLU report. “These sentences are illegal, create hardships for men and women who already struggle with re-entering society after being released from prison or jail, and waste resources in an often fruitless effort to extract payments from defendants who may be homeless, unemployed, or simply too poor to pay.”

(Download pdf’s of the Brennan report and the ACLU report.)

In New Orleans, the ACLU report draws attention to the case of a homeless construction worker, Sean Matthews, who was assessed $498 in fines and costs when he was convicted of possession of marijuana in 2007. After failing to pay the fines, he was arrested and spent five months in jail at a cost of more than $3,000 to the city, according to the report.

Another homeless defendant cited in the ACLU’s report, Gregory White, was arrested for stealing $39 worth of food from a grocery store, and assessed $339 in fines and fees, which were converted to a community service sentence because White was jailed for being unable to pay his fines. White spent 198 days in jail, claiming he could not afford the bus fare to complete his community service. His incarceration cost the city over $3,500, according to the report.

The ACLU report also takes aim at New Orleans Municipal Court, alleging that defendants in low-level crimes are routinely given so-called “fines or time” sentences — forced to choose between 30 days in jail or paying a $100 fine — in violation of a settlement reached in federal court by Municipal Court judges in 2007.

“That’s absolutely not correct,” said Municipal Court Chief Judge Paul Sens. “There may be some very rare incidents of that happening, with ad-hoc appointed judges, and those judges may not be on the same page. But the ACLU did not share their report with us, nor did they ask us about it. If they wanted to give a meaningful report, I would have thought they would have consulted us.

“We don’t hold people in jail because they cannot pay a fine,” Sens said. “The ACLU is just incorrect, and they’re mischaracterizing the information that they received. It’s really not fair to the court.”

Criminal District Court Chief Judge Julian Parker also criticized the ACLU for not show the report to the court before its publication.

“As such, we are unable to comment on their findings, but would question the validity of a report compiled with no input from the judicial system,” Parker wrote in a statement this afternoon.

The ACLU report criticizes New Orleans’ “broken funding scheme for its criminal justice system,” suggesting that the city finance its courts from the general fund, rather than forcing them to rely on money collected from fines, fees, and costs to carry out basic functions. Judges have an incentive to levy high fines, fees, and costs just to keep their courtrooms running, the report says.

The system may also actually create more criminals, the ACLU suggests. From the report:

“When courts attempt to extract their funding from defendants in the form of fines and fees, the burden falls most heavily on those who can least afford it. The poor are captive to a system that punishes poverty with incarceration and can perpetuate recidivism by adding another barrier to re-entry into society for those men and women who face legal debts they cannot meet.”

The ACLU also urged the courts to collect and publish data on fines, fees and costs. Its report also takes aim at Sheriff Marlin Gusman for a “lack of transparency,” for failing to disclose how many prisoners were being held at Orleans Parish Prison for failing to pay fines, fees, and costs — in denial of a public records request filed by the ACLU in April 2010.

Gusman did not respond to a request for comment.

The reports coincide with Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s decision to convene a Criminal Justice Working Group Oct. 15, to examine the potential size of a new city jail.

“We’re incarcerating people simply because they are poor,” said Marjorie Esman, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana. “We need to rethink this before sinking millions of dollars into a bigger jail.”

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