Facing a federal lawsuit for allegedly running a “modern-day debtors’ prison,” a Louisiana judge announced yesterday (June 27) that he will temporarily halt the assignment of jail sentences for those who cannot afford to pay fines to atone for misdemeanor crimes.
“It is the court’s understanding that the collection of these or similar costs is utilized by other courts in Louisiana,” said Bogalusa City Judge Robert Black in a statement cited by The Times-Picayune. “Nevertheless, the court at this time has suspended this practice pending further review.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) listed Black and the Bogalusa City Court as defendants in a federal class action lawsuit filed on June 21. The SPLC filed the suit on behalf of four plaintiffs who faced potential jail time because they could not pay fines. The SPLC said that Black’s practices were unconstitutional, unfairly targeted impoverished people and were rooted in the court’s funding model:
The City Court is funded off the backs of the poor. It substantially relies on the court costs and fees it collects from criminal defendants. The City Court routinely covers at least 15 [percent] of its expenditures through income it generates from criminal defendants. This structural conflict of interest creates an incentive for Defendant Black to find individuals guilty and to coerce payment through the threat of jail…. This incentive is exemplified through Defendant Black’s creation of a $50 “extension fee” to raise additional money to operate the City Court. This extension fee is not authorized by state law. However, Defendant Black gives individuals unable to pay their monetary penalties in full a false choice: they may either go to jail for non-payment of fines and costs or pay this illegal $50 extension fee to buy additional time to pay their monetary penalty.
The SPLC also said that Black did not inquire about the plaintiffs’ economic means when he sentenced them, nor did he offer alternatives like community service to the fines or jail time. According to 2014 American Community Survey estimates, 48.1 percent of Bogalusa residents identify as Black, and 32.6 percent of households make less than $15,000 per year.
As determined in a new joint filing, Black will not jail people for unpaid fines for the next 75 days while he and the plaintiffs negotiate a settlement. He will also provide the SPLC access to his office’s records and weekly jail logs. If the parties do not conclude negotiations in that time frame, the SPLC can request an extension or refile the lawsuit.