The seemingly endless parade of indigent defendants through Criminal District Court in New Orleans means that asking users to pay is not going to work. Meanwhile, the federal courts are taking notice.
Something has to give, but it's difficult to see what the budget-strapped city government and state Legislature will be able to do about it soon.
Days after a federal judge ruled that the fines and fees system at Orleans Parish Criminal District Court is unconstitutional, a second judge issued a similar ruling against Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell.
Cantrell has an unavoidable conflict of interest when he sets bail amounts that help pay for his court's operations, U.S. District Judge Eldon Fallon declared Monday in New Orleans. The result is a “substantial” violation of the constitutional rights of poor defendants who remain behind bars solely because they can't make bail, the judge said.
The problem is hardly unique to Orleans Parish. Across the state, advocates have long argued that Louisiana’s “user pays” court system disproportionately punishes the poor. While 80 percent or more of criminal defendants in New Orleans are deemed indigent and are represented by public defenders, large numbers of those in other jurisdictions are in the same boat.
The federal judges are acting on the basis of lawsuits filed by advocates and rules set by the U.S. Supreme Court. A 1983 decision found the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution bars states from arresting or detaining a defendant solely for failing to pay court costs, without determining if that failure was willful.
It is that last provision that the lawsuits target in Orleans. In the case of Fallon's ruling, it will be up to Cantrell and the judges in criminal court to come up with an alternative scheme for assessing fines and fees.
Although judges and courts use fees and fines to pay court costs, as anyone who has had even a small a violation as a traffic ticket knows, the courts struggle with paying for their operations.
Nonprofit legal organizations brought the recent lawsuits about the court fees and fines.
“In New Orleans, for too long we have locked up people just because they’re poor,” lawyer Katie Schwartzmann said. “What the court’s order today does is require a more individualized determination for people so there’s a thoughtful, meaningful hearing on what will actually serve the safety of our community more broadly, and whether somebody should be detained.”
We disagree with the premise that everyone locked up faces jail time "just because they're poor." In fact, many of the defendants are in court because they did, indeed, break the law
Everyone who owes fines and fees from criminal convictions in Orleans Parish must have the chance to plead poverty in a "neutral forum" before…
Still, the judges are supposed to follow the rules, and the rules set by the U.S. Supreme Court and reiterated by Fallon and others at the federal courts, require at the least a change in processes in the system.
But that won't alter the ultimate problem of how to pay for necessary public services like courts. And let's not even get into the difficulties jurisdictions like Baton Rouge and others across the state have with funding prisons, another necessity that politicians and taxpayers are reluctant to pay for.