A report last week from the Vera Institute of Justice painted a grim portrait of the fallout from millions of dollars in fines and fees that judges level each year on criminal defendants in New Orleans.
When paid, those assessments siphon away millions of dollars a year from needy families and communities. When unpaid, they prompted 4,000 arrest warrants and more than 500 jailings in 2015 alone, the report found.
What the report did not address is which judges hit defendants hardest in the wallet. But records obtained by The Advocate show that the 12 judges of Orleans Parish Criminal District Court vary widely in how much they squeeze from defendants through a variety of fines and fees that go beyond what state law requires.
According to the data, obtained under a public records request, the judges together leveled about $4.5 million in discretionary fines and fees from January 2014 through September 2016 — a little less than three years.
Most of the money — about $2.7 million — was earmarked for the court's Judicial Expense Fund, which the judges historically have tapped for a variety of expenses, including legal conference junkets and insurance benefits.
Those optional fines and fees, which are authorized under various state statutes, also include fees to fund court transcripts for indigent defendants; drug tests; contempt of court fines; fines that the court splits with District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro's office; and other piecemeal charges, according to the data.
They are levied in addition to mandatory assessments that total $337 per felony conviction, according to the court.
District Judge Tracey Flemings-Davillier led the court, imposing $552,000 in optional assessments. Judges Robin Pittman, Keva Landrum-Johnson and Franz Zibilich followed, each assessing about $430,000.
On the other hand, Judge Arthur Hunter issued just $189,000 in optional fees — about a third of what Flemings-Davillier assessed, and the least of any of the court's sitting judges.
Flemings-Davillier also closed more cases than any other judge during 2015 and 2016, court data show, affording her more opportunity to tap convicts for fines and fees.
"I try to be very consistent. If they indicate there may be an issue with payment, I ask them to provide documentation. Anybody who asks gets an extension," Flemings-Davillier said.
"Of course, I'd like it to be funded another way. We try the least restrictive approach. We don't put people in jail (for failure to pay fines or fees). We don't take their liberty or property. But we've got to get funded. It is what it is."
According to the Vera report, however, hundreds of people do go to jail each year in New Orleans for lack of money.
The report found that the bulk of the arrest warrants issued to convicts in 2015 — either for failing to pay or for skipping out on court hearings on their missed payments — were from Municipal Court, which handles less serious but far more numerous cases. Of the 269 people who were booked into jail on payment-related warrants issued in 2015, just 35 had been convicted of felonies, the Vera report found.
What's remains unclear is just who issued those arrest warrants.
The Criminal District Court judges are defendants in a pending federal civil rights lawsuit that accuses them of facilitating a "debtors' prison" by illegally issuing arrest warrants for failure to pay court fines and fees without first offering people a chance to plead poverty.
Many of those warrants were apparently signed by employees in the court's Collections Department, using the judges' names. But in the court case, the judges have balked at revealing if, when or how they authorized the warrants.
"They don't go to jail if they fail to pay with me. They go to jail if they fail to show, and there's a giant distinction," Zibilich said, echoing the judges' defense in the lawsuit.
"The court utilizes its discretion, and when an attorney is able to prove to my satisfaction that a defendant is unable to pay or would be greatly impaired, I use some kind of substitute."
Zibilich led all 12 judges last year in the average amount charged in optional fines and fees for each closed criminal case. He assessed $654 for every closed case through the end of September, nearly twice the court average of $336. Landrum-Johnson and Flemings-Davillier were next, assessing more than $400 for every closed case, according to the data.
The lowest average came in the court section where former Judge Frank Marullo presided until his resignation at the end of 2015. His departure left it up to a series of temporary judges to manage the docket. Those fill-ins closed the fewest cases while handing out the smallest amount of fines and fees, the data show.
Among the 11 elected judges on the bench last year, Hunter assessed the least amount in total fines and fees, and the lowest average per closed case, at $184.
It comes as little surprise that Hunter trailed the pack. The veteran jurist is the court's most vocal critic of a system of funding the court and public defense that falls to a large extent on defendants.
The Vera report found that 32 percent of the Criminal District Court budget, 18 percent of the Municipal Court budget and 41 percent of the Public Defenders Office budget came from "user-funded" revenue, including both bond fines and fees and levies following a conviction.
"I think the way we fund criminal justice in New Orleans is a sin," Hunter said. "We saw this happening in Ferguson (Missouri). It's really happening around the country. It's ass-backwards. You're placing an additional burden on someone who (as a result) may end up back in jail."
Hunter said he often accommodates defendants who plead poverty. "If they can't afford it, I will waive the balance of fees," he said.
That may help explain why defendants in Hunter's courtroom also cough up the least amount of money. They paid just $123,000 of the $2.5 million that the court collected in extra fines and fees from 2014 through last September.
Defendants who came before Judge Benedict Willard paid the most — about $318,000 that went to the court and other agencies.
Willard, who operates a drug court to handle the cases of drug addicts, is annually the most aggressive judge in ordering drug screens for defendants and assessing contempt of court fines for failed tests, the data show. He declined to comment for this story.