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Louisiana judge tries to resolve 'debtors' prison' allegations

A Louisiana city judge accused of running what amounts to a debtors’ prison agreed this week to temporarily halt the practice of jailing offenders who are simply too indigent to pay fines.

Judge Robert Black of the Bogalusa City Court also will seek to work out a more permanent settlement with a civil rights group that last week filed a class-action lawsuit against him over the jailing of poor defendants.

The legal action has implications for courts throughout Louisiana, according to Micah West, a staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center. West told AMI Newswire that other courts are charging similar assessment fees, even though he said the authority to create such fees rests solely with the Louisiana legislature, and not individual judges.

"This case is not about a judge with an evil heart,” West said, adding that the state underfunds its courts and forces them to rely heavily on fees and assessments to cover court costs. “It’s about policy choices made by the Louisiana legislature that make it structurally impossible for Judge Black to be impartial.”

Although officials at the Louisiana Supreme Court did not offer an immediate comment about the lawsuit, a 2014 report by the high court to the state legislature did find that funding issues posed serious problems for lower courts.

The report found that about one-quarter of the city courts statewide experienced problems, such as inadequate funding to operate safely and carry out their constitutional duties. Other city courts specifically cited unreliable sources of revenue, such as self-generated revenues, to fund court operations.

“The manner in which the trial courts are structured and funded results in unevenly resourced courts that may lack critical resources,” the high court concluded. “Insufficient resources may lead to inefficiencies and limit access to justice.”

A recent blog post on the website of the conservative, nonpartisan Pelican Institute, based in New Orleans, found that more conservatives have been embracing justice system reforms that de-emphasize prison options in favor of more flexible alternatives such as probation. Louisiana currently has the nation’s highest per-capita rate for imprisonment, and the price tag of the system has not reduced the crime rate, the blog said.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, based in Montgomery, Ala., filed a class-action lawsuit against Black and the Bogalusa City Court, alleging that the court has been jailing poor offenders for not being able to pay fines. The lawsuit also sought a preliminary injunction to block what it termed the judge’s unlawful practices.

The complaint alleged that Black regularly ordered people to jail for nonpayment of fines stemming from minor traffic infractions and misdemeanor offenses.

Less than a week after the lawsuit was filed, Black agreed to a 75-day settlement during which he will not jail any defendant solely for not paying a fine and will not assess “extension fees” that add to defendants’ debts but give them more time to pay off the full amount.

“The public should be assured that imposing jail time on misdemeanor violations is a matter that the court does not take lightly,” Black said in a prepared statement. “Incarceration is typically a matter of last resort.”

The judge affirmed that when defendants requested extensions to pay fines, the court required the payment of $50 extension fees that go toward the cost of court operations.

“These fees have not and cannot be used as compensation to the city court judge,” Black said. Other courts in Louisiana apply similar fees to defray court costs, he added.

West said the lawsuit contained no allegations that the assessed fees went directly to Black’s salary.

The judge said he would suspend the extension fee process and postpone hearing dates for plaintiffs who brought the initial lawsuit so that the issues raised could be properly reviewed. Other courts throughout Louisiana may be affected as well, Black said.

In addition, he said his agreement to a temporary settlement would allow the attorneys involved to find a more permanent resolution.

The original class-action lawsuit discussed the cases of four plaintiffs, one of whom is Rozzie Scott, 21, of Bogalusa, who was fined $450 for stealing $5 worth of food from a local store to feed his family. Scott’s cousin paid a $50 extension fee to give him more time to pay the assessment, the lawsuit states, but Scott feared he’d be sent to jail if he failed to pay the full amount by a scheduled July 25 hearing.

As a result of the settlement, Scott will not face the possibility of being jailed in July.

One of the issues in the lawsuit is that plaintiffs said the judge did not ask why they could not pay the original fines. The lawsuit alleged that Black simply told defendants that they would do jail time if they could not pay the fines.

The 1983 U.S. Supreme Court decision Bearden v. Georgia states that judges cannot send offenders to jail simply for being too indigent to pay court fines. Judges can jail people if they find the person had the means to pay but “willfully” refused,” the high court decided.

A judge can’t be impartial if there is a strong correlation between the money a court receives and the number of convictions, West said, adding that the extension fees tend to erode people’s faith in the court.

Federal legislation authored by Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) would help to end debtors’ prison practices nationwide by cutting off federal funds to jurisdictions that collect such extension fees. Takano’s legislation also targets the for-profit probation industry. The bill, however, has been stalled in a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee since February.

In his prepared statement, Black emphasized that he would ensure that the operations of his court would remain transparent.

“The court appreciates the concerns of the Southern Poverty Law Center and looks forward to discussions with the plaintiffs’ attorneys,” he said. “In the meantime, members of the public are invited to attend our misdemeanor court proceedings every Monday from 9:30 a.m. until late afternoon and witness for themselves that each case is judged on an individual basis.”