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Rep. Tanner Magee, R-Houma, works at his desk in the House Chamber at the State Capitol, Wednesday, May 29, 2019. He is sponsor of a House-passed bill that would provide funds for construction of the La. 415 connector in West Baton Rouge Parish.

Louisiana needs to take a deeper look at how it uses fines and fees to pay for its courts, because the current system doesn't raise enough money and hurts poor, vulnerable residents. That's the conclusion of an unofficial report sent to the Legislature by the Louisiana Commission on Justice System Funding this week. 

The Commission approved recommendations Thursday to expand research on criminal fines and fees and create consistent standard for how they are reported. 

"We've all acknowledged we have more work to do," said Rep. Tanner Magee (R-Houma) in Thursday's  meeting. 

Established by the Legislature in 2019, the commission was designed to research and recommend ways to fund the court system during the implementation of Louisiana's 2017 criminal justice reforms. Those reforms were intended to, among other goals, remove barriers to successful re-entry for people leaving prison. 

And court fees, according to advocates, create real, lasting challenges for formerly incarcerated people struggling to fulfill the requirements of their parole — or for those trying to comply with their probation terms to avoid prison time. 

Fees ranging from the cost of regular drug tests to bills from the public defender can leave people in the system scrambling to make ends meet so that they don't miss a payment. 

“We hear from clients all the time –‘I know that she’s going to ask me to make a payment and I don’t have the money to pay,’" said Sarah Whittington, staff attorney with the advocacy group the Justice and Accountability Center of Louisiana. "You go into court and it’s shameful to say, ‘I don’t have the money to pay.’"

A 2019 study from the Prison Policy Initiative noted that 69 percent of Louisianans on probation make less than $20,000 annually, further pressuring individuals and families already struggling to afford essentials like housing and groceries. 

Whittington noted that if a probationer skips a court date out of fear they cannot pay a required fee, a warrant may be issued for their arrest. Similarly, if they miss out on a program required by their probation, they could be found in technical violation of their sentence. This places them at risk of having their probation revoked, she said. 

"If a person is arrested and unable to afford an attorney, then they are not likely to be able to afford the hundreds or thousands of dollars in fees at the conclusion of their case," said East Baton Rouge Public Defender and commission member Lindsay Blouin. 

One part of the 2017 criminal justice reform package was a new law that says probationers cannot be imprisoned solely because they can't pay fines and fees. It aims to address the very issue Whittington and others have identified.

But the effective date for this act has been pushed back twice, according to an unofficial draft of the commission's report, primarily due to concerns about how the state's courts will be funded if they cannot collect the fines and fees that constitute a significant portion of their revenue. 

Louisiana's courts are overly reliant on fines and fees, the report says, placing the system at risk of financial collapse and compromising the administration of justice. A 2018 legislative audit revealed self-generated funds covered an estimated 51 percent of district court spending and an estimated 71 percent of city and parish court spending — rendering a large chunk of a court's income reliant on inconsistent funding streams.

Instead, the report suggests, the system should be funded primarily from the state general revenue, a far more stable source. 

The report says the current funding model is ineffective and unreliable, at the ever-fluctuating whim of traffic tickets, crimes committed and people in the system actually able to pay. Sometimes, a jurisdiction will end up spending more to incarcerate people unable to pay the fines and fees than they collect in revenue each year.

For instance, the Vera Institute of Justice reported that the City of New Orleans spent $6.4 million to jail people who could not make these payments in 2015, but managed to collect only $4.5 million in fines and fees — spending more than it collected.

While members of the commission have acknowledged the abundant inefficiencies of the current fiscal model, attempts to investigate the system have been stymied by a dearth of consistent reporting data. The legislative auditor tasked with surveying district courts in recent years realized there is no standardized method for reporting how much money was collected in fines and fees in a given year between jurisdictions, or even a set way to determine how such income was dispersed between agencies. 

"This extreme level of opacity creates conditions ripe for abuse," the report notes. In earlier meetings, members of the commission questioned whether this inability to accurately assess a court's funding basics could leave the system susceptible to fraud.

In addition to expanding the commission's mandate to assess all costs associated with Louisiana courts, the commission recommended on Thursday that the Legislature require a uniform reporting system for all court revenue to ensure transparency. 

Beyond these concerns, the report emphasizes how a system dependent on fines and fees further entrenches "poverty and racial disparities," often by targeting poor communities of color, jailing those unable to pay. 

"The laws are vague enough to allow the criminal legal system to incarcerate people for being poor,” said Vanessa Spinazola, executive director of the Justice and Accountability Center of Louisiana.

Furthermore, if a person can't pay the court fees, in many cases family will step in to cover them, placing the onus of a person's poverty on their community and loved ones.

"When these families have to come together to support the incarcerated person or formerly incarcerated person, you’re actually draining money from the entire family or community just to try and get them out of jail if necessary, or to try and keep them out," Whittington said. "It just creates a lot of instability for the person, but also for the family, and making sure that family can stay together in a supportive environment."

There are an estimated 1200-plus collateral consequences of incarceration in the state of Louisiana alone, ranging from restricted employment to severely limited housing options, according to a tally by the federal National Reentry Resource Center. Spinazola noted that incarceration and re-incarceration as a result of unpaid fines and fees may have devastating consequences down the road. 

"Just because you have this scarlet 'A' of a criminal record, it’s a cycle for your whole life," she said. "It’s a generational cycle that affects your kids and your kids’ kids."

The commission will deliver their recommendations, along with the report, to the Legislature for consideration during the 2020 regular session. 

"The commission's work this year highlighted that the criminal justice system cannot continue to be primarily funded through user paid fines and fees," Blouin said. "With the commission's recommendation to implement a uniform reporting system, I am hopeful that we can get an accurate and complete picture of the full impact that fines and fees have on our communities." 

Advocates, meanwhile, are hopeful this conversation will lead to decisive action. 

Spinazola, while cautiously optimistic, emphasized that another year's delay could be potentially catastrophic for the average person overwhelmed by the requisite fines and fees of their probation.

"The people that this is affecting can’t wait," Spinzaola said. "Every day there are so many Louisianans whose lives are being derailed because it’s taking so long to do. I hope that there’s still some will and some heart to continue to make changes this year and not wait."


Email Jacqueline DeRobertis at jderobertis@theadvocate.com