NEW ORLEANS - A federal court will get to decide if New Orleans' threat of jail time to get court fees paid is constitutional, or has created a "debtors' prison."
"Jailing poor people for being too poor to pay off fines and fees helps no one," Bill Quigley, a New Orleans attorney who is working on this case through the organization Equal Justice Under Law, told the Louisiana Record. "Even a few days in jail can mean losing your place to stay, your job, your kids, everything."
Quigley is helping bring a lawsuit against the city of New Orleans, the New Orleans' Sheriff's Office and the city's court system for jailing or threatening to jail people who fail to pay court fees. Those fees can run approximately $100 a month and payments can last for years. This is often crippling to many residents of New Orleans, a city struggling with poverty.
"New Orleans is a very poor town," Quigley said. "This system forces the poorest people, mostly unemployed people, to use rent money, or beg or borrow from each other to pay unreasonable fines and fees in order to stay out of jail."
Last week, several district judges in the area attempted to have the case thrown out of federal court, saying in their filings that none of the defendants who were jailed or threatened objected or raised constitutional concerns at the time. U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance ruled last week, however, that the case does belong in federal court, and an August trial date was set.
The group, consisting of six New Orleans residents that claim to have been jailed for failure to pay court fees, also plan to seek class-action status. If that is approved, the suit would move from covering just these six to any resident jailed for failure to pay court fees and could establish legal rules that would prevent New Orleans from doing this in the future. Quigley said this is important because this is a widespread problem.
"Thousands of people owe money to the criminal courts and are subject to arrest under current policies if they run into financial troubles and cannot pay," he said.
For its part, the city said in defense filings that it does agree with most of what the plaintiffs are saying, that these sort of sentences lead to prison overpopulation and are unnecessarily harsh, but pointed the finger at the judges, saying they simply follow up on the orders of those judges.
Quigley and his clients are not seeking to have failure to pay not be punished at all, just for alternative options that take into account the poor financial standing of many in the city.
"Many other cities have set up other kinds of punishments for people," Quigley said. "Our city judges do not offer enough community service opportunities nor has the system been set up to work out lower payment plans."