Supporters of the effort to wipe Municipal and Traffic Court debt stage a rally on the steps of City Hall following Wednesday's Criminal Justice Committee meeting, Sept 26, 2019. Credit: Nicholas Chrastil / The Lens

The New Orleans City Council’s Criminal Justice Committee unanimously called for the forgiveness of all outstanding debt individuals have accrued from fines and fees in Municipal and Traffic Court. The committee also encouraged the City Attorney’s Office, which prosecutes traffic and municipal code offenses, to dismiss “low-level, non-violent, and so called Quality of Life offenses, which are typically associated  with homelessness and poverty.”

“Poor residents committing victimless crimes out of desperation and poverty are too often trapped in a hopeless cycle of outstanding fines, fees, and warrants, that ultimately drain all of our tax payer resources without making us a single bit safer,” said Councilman Jason Williams, who introduced the resolution. 

The resolution also asks judges to recall all Municipal and Traffic Court warrants for outstanding charges and provide free drivers license reinstatement letters, which people need to get their licenses reinstated if they’ve been suspended for failure to pay court fines or fees. 

A recent report by Stand With Dignity of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, NOLA Shakedown: How Criminalizing Municipal fines and fees Traps Poor and Working Class Black New Orleanians in Poverty, found that 44,373 people have 55,047 outstanding warrants for municipal and traffic offenses in New Orleans, dating back to 2000. Sixty-nine percent of those individuals are black, according to the report.

“Even though these numbers are large, they actually underrepresent the enormity of the problem,” Nikki Thanos, Legal and Policy Director for Stand With Dignity said at the meeting. She said that because the court hasn’t digitized records dating back to around 2002, there may be additional old warrants that haven’t been counted.

The vote follows a recent report by The Washington Post that found that the number of people with outstanding warrants was equivalent to one-seventh of the city’s adult population. 

Outstanding fines, fees, and warrants can have “profound human costs,” Stand With Dignity argues in their report, leading to job loss, suspended licenses and a “cycle of debt and desperation.”

Lauren Anderson, supervising attorney for Municipal and Magistrate Court at the Orleans Public Defenders office, said that almost all of her office’s clients are chronically homeless, mentally ill, have a substance abuse issue or have been failed by the education system.

“This is our time to all take responsibility,” Anderson said. “ Whether we are on the defense side, whether we are a community organizer, whether we are a politician, whether we are a judge, it is our time to come together and  actually do something about this as a community. Because these are our people.”

But not all of the warrants are related to poverty and homelessness, she said. 

“These are ridiculous warrants that people should never spend a night in jail on,” Anderson said. “There are almost 2,000 for failure to have your rabies tag or have your dog fixed.” 

Aligning with recommendations from Stand With Dignity, the committee also advanced an ordinance on Wednesday that would require municipal judges to inquire to a defendant’s ability to pay before issuing fines, and consider non-financial alternatives if the person is determined to be indigent. 

The Stand With Dignity report suggests going even further by implementing a Day Fines model that would make fine amounts proportionate to income. “For wealthy individuals who pay a substantial sum in fines,” the report reads, “a portion of their fine should be directed toward services and programming that address the root causes of poverty.”

The full city council will now consider both the resolution and the ordinance. 

Municipal Court Judge Paul Sens, who testified at the meeting, said that the courts’ lack of resources, particularly in dealing with mental health, was the biggest problem that leads to people racking up outstanding warrants and cycling through the system.

“We have zero professional people at Municipal Court to help us with people with mental health issues. We need instead to have someone for every judge,” he said. 

The resolution passed Wednesday asks the city to address Sens’ concern, and provide the Municipal and Traffic Court with “staff, technology, and expert assistance necessary to facilitate a comprehensive and expeditions warrant, fine and fee forgiveness program, preferably within three months of this resolution.”

Sens said that right now, if people go into Municipal Court to get their warrants taken care of, they will not be arrested. 

“I know I’m going to get the phone calls, because I’ve been told before that I’m soft on crime, and all this other craziness,” Councilman Jay Banks said. “I get that. But at the end of the day, these issues are not criminal. Economic poverty should not be a crime.”

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...