Every day in communities across Louisiana, people are sentenced to jail for being poor. Not because being poor is a crime, but because lack of funds can make it impossible to pay court-ordered fines or fees. Jailing poor people simply because they can’t pay was declared unconstitutional in 1982, when the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed the case of a Georgia man sentenced to two years because he hadn’t paid $550 in court-ordered fines.
In that case, Beardon v. Georgia, the Court ruled that before someone can be jailed for not paying fines, courts must investigate why the debt hasn’t been paid. Courts must distinguish between a refusal to pay and an inability to pay despite best efforts. Someone who simply has no money cannot be jailed for being poor. That’s been the law since 1982, yet it happens every day in Louisiana and across this country.
Consider someone threatened with jail for being unable to pay a $500 fine for littering. That’s what happened to a Caddo Parish woman, who avoided jail only because a lawyer negotiated community service instead. Going to jail for littering makes no sense, but it can happen if the litterer is poor. It almost happened to her.
To some, $500 is the price of an evening out — dinner at a fine restaurant, tickets to a concert or a Saints game. To others, it could be a month’s rent. For someone making minimum wage, it’s almost two weeks’ pay before taxes. What for one person is a minor inconvenience can be literally impossible for someone else — resulting in incarceration simply for lack of funds.
Recently, the ACLU of Louisiana released a report, “Louisiana’s Debtors Prisons: An Appeal to Justice” highlighting this problem across Louisiana. Surveying parishes and cities around the state, we found debtors prison practices widespread. Sometimes, a sentence is imposed as an alternative to a fine, and if someone lacks the money, jail is automatic. It can be $200 or 30 days, as happens in the city of Ville Platte where people are routinely sentenced for not wearing required reflective clothing at night. More often, jail is imposed when someone misses an installment payment on a fine, at which point the person is charged with contempt of court.
This practice is not only illegal, it makes no sense. Taxpayer funds aren’t well-spent jailing minor offenders who simply lack money. Courts can, and by law must, investigate why someone doesn’t pay and, whenever possible, find alternatives such as community service. Surely, we’d all be better off if someone is given the chance to work on behalf of the community rather than languish in the local jail at a cost of upwards of $21 per day.
And consider the collateral consequences of going to jail: loss of income, perhaps loss of housing, disruption of family relationships. There’s the pregnant single mother of three jailed for an unpaid fine who used rent money to get out, thereby putting her children at risk of homelessness. And there’s the man incarcerated several times for his inability to pay fines and whose drivers license is suspended as a result. Without a drivers license, he has trouble getting work as a landscaper. If he can’t work, it’s increasingly impossible to pay his fines.
Certainly, people who break the law must suffer a consequence. We are a system of laws, after all. But it makes no sense for penalties to disproportionately affect some more than others. The wealthy shouldn’t be allowed to violate the law with impunity simply because they can pay their fines while others sit in jail for a single infraction. A poor person who wants to pay must be allowed to do so without fear of imprisonment.
A new class action lawsuit, filed in federal court in New Orleans, challenges this practice in Orleans Parish. Cain v. City of New Orleans seeks to end illegally jailing people who want to pay court obligations but simply can’t. This suit shouldn’t be needed, because the practice has already been outlawed. For that reason, the plaintiffs should and must win, and the practice must stop. Everywhere. Because nobody benefits when we treat poverty as a crime.
Marjorie Esman is executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana.