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Criminalization of Poverty: Louisiana courts’ over-reliance on fines and fees for funding

In 1833, the United States banned debtors prisons, and over a century and a half later the Supreme Court affirmed that to incarcerate an indigent debtor was unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. Yet citizens across the country, including those here in Louisiana, are jailed daily because of their inability to pay court-assessed fines, fees and costs.

Meanwhile, people accused of the same crime go free simply because they have the money to pay the court.

A research brief by the Council of Economic Advisors notes that in 1986, 12% of people incarcerated in the United States were also assessed a fine, but by 2004, that figure had grown to 37% of the incarcerated population. The same brief also reported that between 1996 and 2014, the number of people incarcerated in jail without a conviction grew by 59%.

Such sanctions are thought to be useful tools to deter crime and promote public safety. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, a survey of almost 1,000 people in Alabama found that 38% reported committing a crime to pay their court debt.

Clearly, excessive fees cause more harm than good. They create public distrust in the justice system, and they disproportionately impact communities of color.

Yet, the criminal justice system in Louisiana, and so many others across the country, rely heavily on funding generated off the backs of people cycling through the system. For people who are already experiencing financial hardship, these added expenses send them deeper into debt that many never escape.

Louisiana is one of the states that is most reliant on fines and fees to fund its courts, and much of this money also goes to fund other agencies and even the general revenue funds of localities, research has found. In February 2020, a commission examining the issue submitted a preliminary report to the Legislature suggesting that Louisiana courts’ over-reliance on fines and fees “puts the system at risk of financial collapse and compromises the administration of justice.”

This creates a perverse incentive to over-police and over-prosecute for the purpose of generating revenue, rather than for public safety. It also leads to the disproportionate targeting of poor, rural and minority communities, as the onus of fines and fees collection falls primarily on these groups. Overall, it undermines public trust in the justice system as police officers act as debt collectors, and the courts are driven by the possibility of financial gain.

The state has taken initial steps to address this problem.

During the 2019 legislative session, the Louisiana Legislature passed House Concurrent Resolution 87. It created the Louisiana Commission on Justice System Funding to produce a report and recommendations to the governor and Legislature in the spring of 2022. It’s the same commission that issued the preliminary report warning of the potential financial collapse of the court system.

In addition to recommending how to steer Louisiana courts away from a user-funded system, it must also implement changes that were made in Act 260, earlier reform legislation designed to ensure “criminal justice fines and fees do not become a barrier to successful reentry by determining a person’s ability to pay.” Act 260 was set to take effect Aug. 1, 2018, but the date continues to be delayed because of concerns about how the court system will be funded if not by collecting fines and fees.

In other words, much work remains before the state’s court system no longer criminalizes poverty.

The Louisiana Commission on Justice System Funding meets monthly at the state capitol in Baton Rouge. Commission meetings are open to the public. More information can be found here.

Chandra Shae Foster is a policy associate for the SPLC Action Fund in Louisiana.

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