Back in September, the Southern Poverty Law Center announced a settlement with the city court in Bogalusa in a federal lawsuit over the jailing of poor people who fail to pay fines for minor offenses. The agreement affirms the city court's right to jail people it deems deserving — including those who can, but don't, pay fines.
"However," the agreement also states, "a jail sentence may not be imposed solely because the person is deemed indigent."
Since poverty isn't a crime, the fact that a federal court-backed agreement is needed to make sure people aren't jailed for being poor might seem surprising to some — but not to anyone who keeps seeing the words "debtor's prison" pop up in lawsuits and news stories.
One such suit was filed in New Orleans in 2015. Wednesday brought a major ruling in that case: U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance said the judges of the state criminal courts in Orleans Parish have a conflict of interest because they rely on fines and fees for court funding — raising legitimate concerns over whether the court's financial needs might affect decisions on whether low-income defendants are able to pay.
Alec Karakatsanis of the Civil Rights Corps, one of the groups that backed the lawsuit, called it a landmark ruling. "For a long time a lot of very poor people have been suffering flagrant violations of their constitutional rights and having money extorted out of them," he said.
Vance's ruling is likely to affect other cases.
Next month, a hearing is set in federal court in a lawsuit against the Gretna Mayor's Court. The suit filed by the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center accuses the Mayor's Court of operating "not as a forum for the legitimate adjudication and resolution of alleged violations of the Gretna Municipal Code but instead as a major source of revenue for the municipality."
It touches on the same issues as the 2015 New Orleans suit. It accuses the mayor's court of conflicts of interest because money from the court helps fill the city's general fund. It also alleges violations of constitutional equal protection rights because fees charged for its deferred prosecution program are out of reach for some. (The city denied, through its attorney, any conflicts of interest or constitutional violations.)
Another, related case: In northwest Louisiana, a lawsuit claimed state judges in Bossier Parish were routinely ordering jail time for people charged with minor crimes who couldn't afford bail or an application fee for a public defender. It was settled in July with an agreement that states "no misdemeanor arrestee will be kept in jail on the basis of a secured money bond that they cannot afford."
Also, again in New Orleans, the MacArthur center is backing a suit that accuses a magistrate judge of routinely setting high bails without regard to defendants' ability to pay, leaving impoverished people accused of nonviolent crimes behind bars for days, weeks and sometime months in the New Orleans jail.
While groups like the SPLC and the MacArthur center tackle matters involving bail, fines, fees and inability to pay on a jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction basis in courts, a true resolution may be up to city councils and the Legislature.
In her ruling on the New Orleans-based court, Vance said the conflict of interest that exists there isn't the fault of the judges. "It is the unfortunate result of the financing structure, established by governing law, that forces the judges to generate revenue from the criminal defendants they sentence," she wrote.
If the state and city adequately funded the courts, she added, the conflict wouldn't exist.
"The onus is now on the Legislature to create a constitutional and effective legal system in Louisiana," said Karakatsanis.
Meanwhile, the litigation continues. Attorney Katie Schwartzmann of the MacArthur center says some judges are taking the initiative and seeking guidance on matters of bail and indigent defendants. But more lawsuits are likely in other jurisdictions.
"We have more work than we can get to on this front," says Schwartzmann.
Kevin McGill is an Associated Press reporter in New Orleans.