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19th Judicial District Judge Trudy White

ADVOCATE STAFF FILE PHOTO BY BILL FEIG

With the help of a local judge, a pretrial services company in Baton Rouge has held hundreds of inmates "ransom" in recent years by requiring they shell out hefty fees on top of their court-ordered bail before they can be released from jail, according to a new class-action lawsuit.

The lawsuit, filed late Monday by the ACLU of Louisiana and the Southern Poverty Law Center, accuses the company, Rehabilitation Home Incarceration, of violating state and federal racketeering laws by "extorting" an initial $525 payment — and hundreds of dollars in subsequent fees — from defendants assigned to pretrial supervision.

"Those who cannot afford the fee languish in jail for days, weeks or even months as their loved ones scramble to assemble money to pay off RHI," the lawsuit says. 

The lawsuit, which names East Baton Baton Rouge Parish as a defendant, claims local jail officials have been complicit in "wrongfully detaining" inmates before they have paid RHI for their pretrial supervision.

The lawsuit also alleges RHI has benefited from its political support of 19th Judicial District Judge Trudy White, who according to the lawsuit has "indiscriminately" ordered hundreds of defendants to complete services offered by the family-owned company — including electronic monitoring — without even inquiring about their financial resources. The company, which does not have a formal contract with the court, provides its services through "an informal agreement" with White, the lawsuit alleges. 

Founded in 1993, RHI has supervised "thousands of clients" in East Baton Rouge, Orleans, Ascension and Tangipahoa parishes, according to its website. The lawsuit describes RHI officials as "political allies" of White who supported her successful re-election bid in 2014. RHI is led by Cleve Dunn Sr., whose son once reportedly ran White's campaign.

The lawsuit, citing court records, says White, after winning re-election, ordered more than 300 criminal defendants to complete RHI's services in 2015 and 2016. It's unclear whether any other judges in the 19th Judicial District are sending business to RHI.    

Reached by phone Monday, White refused to comment on the racketeering lawsuit. Dunn, who unlike White was named as a defendant in the litigation, could not be reached for comment.

The lawsuit raises a number of allegations first reported last year by WAFB-TV. In many cases, White assigns defendants to undergo pretrial supervision even before they have appeared before her, the lawsuit claims, and "does not ask arrestees any questions before assigning them to RHI, such as whether an arrestee can afford to pay bond or RHI's initial or monthly fees." According to the lawsuit, White does not allow arrestees to be heard at probable cause hearings and assigns arrestees to RHI supervision "without conducting an individualized determination of the need for, or the conditions of RHI supervision. 

"Rather than conduct these inquiries, Judge White signs an order making RHI supervision a condition of release on bond, without instruction about the terms of this supervision," the lawsuit says.

RHI, in turn, instructs jail officials not to release pretrial inmates ordered to undergo its services until RHI has received payment. The lawsuit says jail officials have violated inmates' rights by detaining them "beyond expiration of a valid order of confinement, without probable cause."   

The lawsuit says RHI, despite charging "significant fees for its supervision," does not typically require supervisees to make "substantive reports" to their monitors beyond complying with a curfew. The lawsuit also alleges that Dunn and RHI monitors "routinely threaten" program participants with re-arrest if they fail to make monthly $225 payments, a practice described in the lawsuit as "an unlawful use of fear."

"Dunn's use of RHI to extort money from arrestees assigned by Judge White constitutes a pattern of racketeering activity," the lawsuit says. "These actions are a regular way of conducting the ongoing business of RHI."

Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.