Justice System Funding meeting on 110121

Louisiana Commission on Justice System Funding, which is trying to find a better way to fund the state and local court systems, hears about the impact of changes at a State Capitol hearing on Monday, Nov. 1, 2021 from Kevin Ardoin of the Acadiana Criminalistics Laboratory.

A task force searching for ways to fund courts with tax money instead of fines and fees wants to draft some hard recommendations by the end of the month, though it has only a fraction of the information it has requested.

“I don’t want this to be like all the other Louisiana task forces,” Rep. Tanner Magee, chair of the Louisiana Commission on Justice System Funding said Monday, alluding to the number of governmental studies that go nowhere.

Speaker Pro Tem Magee says he expects sweeping changes over the next few years, but he wants to get started now. “I’m not looking for a sea change. I am looking for change,” the Houma Republican said.

The commission has been criticized for not moving fast enough. But when convened a couple of years ago, nobody could really say how the court systems operate. Each parish, district and most municipalities developed their own procedures, funding, and protocols over time. While the state pays the salaries for judicial district and appellate court judges, most courts get their operating funding from traffic violations, fines for misdemeanors and other crimes, plus a variety of fees – all of which are paid by the accused.

Progress was slowed when the Louisiana Legislative Auditor reported back to the commission that local and parish courts logged the money under all sorts of names and accounts. Few courts could say how many fines and fees were issued, how much was collected, and just which agencies got the money. When legislators convened last year they had to pass new laws compelling all courts to gather the information, using standard definitions, for the auditors to review.

Data is coming in from the 1,555 state or local entities that collect and/or receive payments from the fines and fees. Auditors looked closely at collections reported by 77 entities on the local level and found that defendants accused of contempt, including not timely paying traffic tickets, raised $3.2 million for those judicial entities. Criminal courts charged defendants $11.5 million for costs and $7.8 million in other fines. The credit card companies and third parties that collected the money received $757,000 for their services.

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Louisiana’s court system costs, maybe, $300 million to operate, Magee said, adding that’s only an educated guess.

The directors of two crime scene investigatory labs pointed out to the commission that they receive money from just about every defendant assessed fees in their region. Ten dollars for some infractions, $160 from felons, $60 for misdemeanors, $50 from driving while intoxicated and some drugs convictions.

Kevin Ardoin said about 95% of the money his Acadiana Criminalistics Laboratory, in New Iberia, receives comes from the courts because of the amount investigatory work performed for prosecutors. The labs really don’t know from one year to the next how much money they will receive.

“We operate like a church. We base our budgets on what they give us,” said Joseph O. Jones, of North Louisiana Criminalistics Laboratory, in Shreveport.

State Public Defender Rémy Voisin Starns, a member of the commission, said his office, which pays the attorneys provided for defendants who cannot afford to hire their own, operates pretty much the same way. The commission's goal is to find stable funding for the courts that doesn’t rely on a steady stream of alleged criminals to pay fines and fees.

The ideas being discussed range from raising millages on property taxes to reducing expenses by consolidating courts to an appropriating money straight out the state general fund. “Just brainstorming for ways to find some way to pay for the court system without using fines and fees,” Starns said. Whatever the recommendation, the Legislature would have to pass a law for it to happen.

Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.