Instead of being immediately tossed into jail for failing to pay fines or fees related to whatever legal issues you may have, a federal judge has ruled that anyone who owes money from criminal convictions in New Orleans must have a chance to plead poverty in a “neutral forum,” before being put behind bars for failure to pay.
According to the New Orleans Advocate, the ruling handed down by U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance on Friday, Aug. 3 brings an end to the three-year legal battle over the “debtors’ prison” lawsuit that was brought forward by convicts who were jailed for days and even longer in the parish, without being given a chance to prove that they could not afford to pay the fees or fines associated with their convictions.
Vance cited “undisputed evidence” that shows that 13 judges of Orleans Parish Criminal District Court have “a policy or practice of not inquiring into criminal defendants’ ability to pay before those individuals are imprisoned for nonpayment of court debts.” Vance also declared that judges have an “institutional conflict of interest” in making the determinations of poverty themselves as proceeds from fines and fees go straight into the court’s Judicial Expense Fund, which is controlled by judges and can be used for several judicial expenses. According to the Advocate, these fines and fees add about $1 million a year to the court’s finances.
The federal judge slammed the court’s failure to “provide a neutral forum for determination of such persons’ ability to pay is unconstitutional,” however, her ruling appears to leave it up to the court to decide how to set up a neutral forum for such decisions.
Attorneys of the plaintiffs in the case called Friday’s ruling a win.
“This is a victory for the people of New Orleans and for those committed to fixing the breaks in the criminal justice system,” Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told the Advocate. “America treats being poor as a crime, disproportionately victimizing people of color. This ruling ensures that people can no longer be thrown in jail in Orleans Parish for their poverty alone.”