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 took a step towards making history last week. By voting in support of the dismissal of municipal and traffic warrants, fines and fees, the Council created an opening for more than forty-thousand New Orleanians to escape a vicious cycle of poverty and incarceration. With council members, judges, community advocates, and directly impacted city residents coming together to imagine a more just criminal legal system, our city is positioned to jump from being the target of civil rights lawsuits to being a leader in reform.

Dismissing existing fines, fees and warrants is only the beginning. Lifting the shadow currently hanging over the heads of tens of thousands of New Orleanians will help many escape the cycle of poverty and criminalization, but every day that the current system exists, more will get sucked in. We need a whole new system, focused on accountability and restorative justice.

”This is not a justice system. This is a wealth extraction system that has criminalized poor people of color, trapped us in a cycle of poverty, and used the profits to fund itself.”

Tina Weary struggles to make ends meet as a preloader for UPS. She could more than double her income by getting promoted to being a driver, but her license is suspended. Six years ago, she was pulled over and fined $792 for driving uninsured and with brake tags the police officer thought were fake. She couldn’t pay the fine and was put on a payment plan that she couldn’t afford either. She slowly fell behind until a letter arrived one day notifying her her license had been suspended.

She’s been unable to drive ever since and she feels trapped. A bicycle doesn’t get her very far in New Orleans East and her wages as a preloader don’t get her any closer to paying off her traffic debt. It’s a catch-22 with no obvious escape.

Tina is not alone. A staggering one in seven adult New Orleanians has a warrant out for their arrest. As we found in our recent report, NOLA Shakedown: How Criminalizing Municipal Fines & Fees Traps Poor & Working Class Black New Orleanians in Poverty, more than 56,000 outstanding warrants are in the Municipal and Traffic Court, and the vast majority of these warrants are for minor offenses that cause little to no harm to society, including thousands for crimes of homelessness and poverty. Given that New Orleans has the highest poverty rate of any major American city, it’s no surprise that tens of thousands of New Orleanians have been  swept up into this cycle.

It’s also no coincidence that the burden falls disproportionately on Black New Orleanians. Louisiana has the highest race and gender wage gap in the nation, with Black women earning 47 cents for every dollar earned by a white man. The median household income for Black residents in Orleans Parish in 2017 was $24,418, compared to $63,482 for white residents. As a  result, sixty-nine percent of people with warrants are Black, further entrenching racial inequality in the criminal legal system.

This is not a justice system. This is a wealth extraction system that has criminalized poor people of color, trapped us in a cycle of poverty, and used the profits to fund itself. Historically, the city’s court system has been funded by fines and fees, tying court budgets to the number of people who walk through the door and the dollar amount they are charged. Perversely, when factoring in the cost of jailing people for nonpayment, these fines and fees are a financial drain on the city.

After years of advocacy and a series of lawsuits, however, things are beginning to change. City Council’s vote calling for the Municipal Court to wipe outstanding fines, fees and warrants is a crucial step in the right direction and a display of the type of leadership we should expect from our elected officials. The openness to reform and creative solutions that Municipal Court judges like Judge Paul Sens have shown is incredibly heartening too. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of New Orleanians like Tina want to get back on the right side of the law if they only had the means to do so. If we all work together, nothing is stopping the city from not only addressing past harms, but ending the criminalization of poverty going forward, too.

For years, opponents of reform have argued that there are no viable alternatives to regressive and punitive fines and fees with the threat of incarceration for those who cannot pay. But around the world, other systems have been tested and proven. Courts in Latin America and Europe have used day fines—fines set based on the defendant’s daily personal income—for decades to promote accountability and equity. By adjusting fines based on ability to pay in this way, these courts ensure that no one is punished because they’re poor and that no one escapes meaningful accountability because they’re rich. This system also maintains overall revenue without resorting to a regressive mechanism that exacerbates income inequality.

For those who are unable to pay even a small fine, we know that humane, dignified community service is possible. This does not need to look like anyone being subjected to humiliating or hazardous work that paid workers refuse to do. Instead, restorative justice practices that are gaining traction in courts around the country show us that non-monetary alternatives can not only provide accountability, but also open up opportunities for rehabilitation and restitution.

These are models that we can and must adopt. Every New Orleanian deserves to open their mailbox without fear that they will have to choose between paying their electric bill and paying a traffic ticket. Every New Orleanian deserves to drive down the street without fear of being arrested for driving while poor. Every New Orleanian deserves to walk down the street without fear that the color of their skin or the emptiness of their wallet will land them in a jail cell. We can’t shy away from imagining a just future. With last week’s  city council vote, and with the support of the Court, the Mayor and the people of New Orleans, that future is within reach.

Toya Lewis, Lead Organizer, Stand With Dignity

Toya Lewis is an organizer with Stand with Dignity, a program of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice that builds a base of Black underemployed and unemployed workers and their families ready to make necessary changes to the New Orleans economy to have equitable access to full and fair employment. Over the past eight years Toya has worked with Stand with Dignity members to win many policies that decriminalize poverty and advance equity in the New Orleans economy.

The opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens Founder Karen Gadbois.