City Court loses push for user fee to generate extra money

The East Baton Rouge Parish City Court leaders want a better case management system, which they hoped to pay for through a user fee. The Metro Council rejected the user fee this week. Advocate Staff Photo.

Fines for nonviolent offenses like traffic tickets start out small but can snowball into crippling debt, especially for people already struggling to make ends meet. 

And national research has shown this often affects brown and black people, who are subjected to municipal fines and fees at a greater rate than white people.

But Baton Rouge is one of six cities that will attempt this year to break the cycle of fines and fees that disproportionately affect low-income families.

The new initiative will build upon efforts already underway in Baton Rouge City Court, which is trying to clear its log of outstanding fines and bench warrants.

"Sometimes these fines and fees can be very small amounts. But when people can’t pay them, they double. And then they kind of escalate and they become this rippling effect, a kind of downward spiral," said Denise Belser, a program director with the National League of Cities. "There’s a lot of data around this topic. The issue being there is a lot on inequity around the levying of fines and fees for many. We find that it’s prevalent in communities of color."

Baton Rouge joins cities in Colorado, North Carolina, Michigan, Tennessee and Minnesota that were awarded an up to $30,000 grant this year through the NLC's Cities Addressing Fines and Fees Equitably program.

Plans for the grants vary from city-to-city.

Belser said some are addressing outstanding utility debts and others are focusing on towing and impound fees. 

Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome had City Court apply for the grant to focus on outstanding fines and fees connected to nonviolent offenses — mostly traffic fines. 

Elzie Alford, clerk of court and judicial administrator for City Court, said there are more than 100,000 active bench warrants for offenders who have failed to pay their court-ordered fines and fees, either because they didn't make court appearances (many because they couldn't afford to take off from work) or they just don't have money to pay them.

In 2017, a snapshot year the city-parish used to apply for the NLC grant, traffic fines and associated fees were levied on 30,197 black people, 1,806 Hispanics and 10,098 white people. The U.S. Census Bureau had the parish's racial makeup around the time at a near-even split between whites and blacks. 

"That alone probably showed them there is a disparity there," Alford said. "East Baton Rouge Parish is not majority black. And even though the city is, looking at the percentages of whites versus blacks, it appears that minorities are disproportionately affected per capita in population." 

Belser points to national research and data that has shown there has been, and continues to be, subconscious bias within the nation's court systems, often at multiple levels that include local police and the collections process. 

In its 2017 report, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found the public's aversion to new taxes has led many municipalities to rely on fines and fees to supplement budgetary shortfalls. Cities and towns that rely heavily on revenue from fines and fees have a higher-than-average percentage of black and Latino populations, and those living in the poorest ZIP code areas were disproportionately affected by fines and fees. 

In his 2016 Priceonomics article "The Fining of Black America," journalist Dan Kopf found that a city's average household income level had little connection to a city's reliance on fines as a revenue source; however, municipalities that are overwhelmingly white and non-Hispanic didn't exhibit an excessive amount of fining even when they had a high level of impoverished residents.

The NLC began eyeing Baton Rouge as a possible recipient of its CAFFE grant since February 2019. 

And in a first round of funding, City Court had already begun holding Saturday Court, where offenders can pay off fines and/or speak with court officials about special payment plans if they are struggling to make ends meet. 

"A lot of people, depending on their job, can’t take off work middle of week so it gave them an opportunity to access court on the weekends," Alford said.

When Saturday Court was held Sept. 28, hundreds of people waited in a line that spilled out of the city courthouse. And more than $15,000 in outstanding fines and fees were collected over the five-hour span, he said.

Alford said City Court is taking things a step further this year by working with judges who have agreed to suspend the first bench warrant fee in many cases, and offer community service as an alternative payment in addition to the partial payment plan option the court has already established.

The grant will also pay for several financial planning and education firms to help those in the program analyze their finances and create personal budgets and goals. 

City Court has created questionnaires and special forms to identify individuals who could qualify for the program. 

Court officials are required to submit a final report by May 29 detailing the outcome of the program. The NLC will use the data collected in Baton Rouge and the five other cities for future funding to help other cities with the same issue.

"None of this will be a 'get out of jail free' card," Alford said. "What we're doing is shaving off fees, not getting rid of fines. We don't want people thinking, 'I got a traffic fine and paid mine, but Jimmy who ran for 10 years gets his forgiven.'" 

He added, "We're trying to help people pay and hopefully gain a better understanding on how to better take care of business on the front end."

Email Terry Jones at tjones@theadvocate.com