New Orleans Criminal Court Systems Accused of Milking the Poor with Exorbitant Fees

Wednesday, September 23, 2015
(photo: Getty Images; photo illustration: Steve Straehley, AllGov)

New Orleans’ court system is running a debtors’ prison, according to a class-action lawsuit brought that points out the unfairness of the city financing its judiciary on the backs of those who can least afford it.


The levying of fees and issuing of arrest warrants for a failure to pay them “is an illegal, unconstitutional and unjust modern debtors’ prison,” the complaint (pdf) says.


The lawsuit, filed by six plaintiffs, also claims the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court has thrown defendants, most of them poor, in jail with no “notice of how or when” people will be released or when a hearing will be held. Those arrested for failure to pay the fees are subject to an automatic $20,000 bond.


Judges working for the courts are accused of having a conflict of interest because the fines they levy finance the criminal courts’ Judicial Expense Fund. The entire scheme represents a violation of the Fourth and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution, according to the suit.


“Despite longstanding Supreme Court precedent that the government cannot imprison people just because they are poor, New Orleans officials routinely use jail and threats of jail to collect court debts from thousands of the City’s poorest people,” the complaint says.


“The result is an illegal, unconstitutional and unjust modern debtors’ prison,” the plaintiffs claim. “The environment of threats of jail and actual jailing creates a culture of fear among indigent people and their families, who borrow money at high interest rates, divert money from food for their children, and cash their family members’ disability checks in a desperate attempt to … avoid indefinite confinement.”


The state pays the judges’ salaries, but it’s up to the city to pay for the rest of its judicial system. “The way Louisiana has funded the criminal justice system is to try and provide as many user fees as possible to finance it,” Rafael Goyeneche, the president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a New Orleans-based watchdog group, told The New York Times. Goyeneche said the fees can sometimes be larger than the fine.


The lawsuit also claims that arrest warrants for those delinquent on their fees are signed with a judge’s name by clerks in the collections department without the case being put before a judge.

-Noel Brinkerhoff, Steve Straehley


To Learn More:

Federal Lawsuit Claims Orleans Parish Judges Create ‘Debtors’ Prison’ By Illegally Jailing People For Failure To Pay Fees And Fines Without Hearing (by John Simerman, New Orleans Advocate)

New Orleans Courts Said to Run Debtors’ Prison (by Sabrina Canfield, Courthouse News Service)

Suit Alleges ‘Scheme’ in Criminal Costs Borne by New Orleans’s Poor (by Campbell Robertson, New York Times)

Alana Cain v. City of New Orleans (U.S. District Court, Eastern Louisiana) (pdf)

Will Billing Rape Victims Thousands of Dollars for Medical Exams in Louisiana Finally Come to an End? (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Steve Straehley, AllGov)

Stealth Return of Debtors’ Prison in Ohio (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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