Criminal Justice

New Orleans courts unfair to poor defendants, reports say

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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  • New Orleans Parish Criminal Court and Municipal Court, aka “Tulane & Broad” is NOT the only location for unfair New Orleans court systems, when it comes to disadvantaged people / minority people –whatever their skin color when people are NOT members of the class of the ELITE –or NOT affiliated with the “Louisiana Way” that was fully described at the impeachment trial of Judge Thomas Porteous (available on C-Span).

    The situation is not merely costs and fees being forced upon poor people, it is the so-called ADJUDICATION of civil cases (including underhanded activity in Bankruptcy courts) pertaining to poor people which is the true atrocious reality!!! (Such UNFAIRNESS is one of primary reasons why innumerable people have had no choice except to be exiled from New Orleans (and other parts of Louisiana) since Hurricane Katrina –particularly after pleadings, documents, and records turned up missing from the 4th floor record room at CDC despite no floor waters reached there!)

    Even more appalling, is the fact that judicial abuses occur for defenseless people who lack legal ability to even recognize or articulate which laws were violated against them; and even for some who recognize particular wrongs occurred, there are no legal representatives available to them for prosecuting their rights. As clearly shown from the lawyers’ impeachment testimony boasting about the custom of Louisiana gift giving and doing favors for courtroom judges, poor people can hardly afford to do that. Without hesitation and without any worry about not being to prove the following, this is what I mean when I talk about lawless adjudication:

    (Note the recent HEADLINES about certain mortgage lenders suspending foreclosures in 23 states –including Louisiana, due to actions associated with foreclosure mills!) Foreclosures via DECEPTIVE and FRAUDULENT PROCEEDINGS enables repetitive, and illegal property flipping; it enables lenders to falsify IRS form 1099-A”s; it enables unscrupulous foreclosure mill lawyers (especially because of judges who purposefully abet deceit) to deceptively hold auctions and make insider bids to acquire those properties; and blighted neighborhoods. Fraudulent foreclosures ensure the success of FABRICATED BANKRUPTCY COURT ‘Lift Stay motions’ and false ‘Proof of Claims’.

    Foreclosure via fraud is the reason for illegitimate homelessness and underhanded evictions, unjustified IRS tax bills due to false 1099-A’s, and unfair “Deficiency Judgments.” Ironically, some people who express their anger at “deadbeats” appear to be more acceptable about the manifest fraud and criminal activity being carried out by people with credentials to practice law. Equally ironic is the reality that some people pretending to be annoyed about “deadbeats” are the actual people who are participating in real estate racketeering -fully sanctioned by the majority of courts, especially Bankruptcy Courts!

    In Louisiana, two particular companies that benefit from fraudulent foreclosures are Wells Fargo and Freddie Mac; predatory foreclosure mill lawyers include the Dean Morris Law Firm, Herschel C. Adcock, Jr., and Brett P. Furr; Atty. William M. Detweiler also helped out; and judges who have purposefully abetted fraudulent foreclosures include Federal Judge Lance Africk, Federal Judge Kurt Engelhardt, Federal Judge A.J. McNamara, bankruptcy Judge Douglass Dodd,and Orleans Parish Judge Lloyd J. Medley. *SEE: IMPORTANT FACTS ABOUT FORECLOSURE AND MORTGAGE FRAUD Judge Thomas Porteous and the Judicial ‘Devil’s Den’ from Whence He Came