NEW ORLEANS – A federal judge has ruled a case must be heard against New Orleans criminal court judges, sheriff’s office and city government that were allegedly involved in a debt-to-prison pipeline stretching back several years.
The “debtor’s prison,” as it has become known, has earned that nickname by repeatedly using jail as a threat to the impoverished to pay their court fees, according to the plaintiffs.
U.S. District Judge Sarah S. Vance ruled that the city of New Orleans will have its day in federal court, and ignored attempts by the defendants to throw the case out.
“The general policy in federal courts (is) to give plaintiffs the benefit of a chance to prove their case; it is not at all surprising that this case will move forward,” Marjorie Esman, the director of ACLU Louisiana, told the Louisiana Record.
The suit was filed by six people who reported they were jailed for not paying court fees, which they believe was unconstitutional.
According to the plaintiffs' lawyer, court fees can often last for years and amount to more than $100 per month. That number is an insurmountable feat for some citizens in one of the poorest cities in the country.
In filing the lawsuit, the plaintiffs hope a judge not only rules their jailing unconstitutional, but also helps other impoverished people better afford their court fees. For example, a suggestion has been made that monthly payments could be lowered to $25 per month–a more manageable sum for those affected.
“The Supreme Court ruled in 1983 that courts can’t jail someone simply for being unable to pay a fine,” Esman said.
Debtor’s prisons were outlawed in the United States more than 200 years ago. As Esman mentions, the issue was brought to the forefront again in 1983 in the Bearden v. Georgia case. Back then, the Supreme Court reaffirmed judges could not send people to jail if they were too poor to pay court fees.
However, they left a small loophole in their decision, in which a judge must decide if a person is choosing not to pay court fees, or if said defendant is unable to come up with the money. If it is deemed that they are willfully not paying fees, then they can be jailed.
“It is absolutely unconstitutional to jail someone for being poor,” Esman said.
According to multiple investigations done by members of the media, judges are inconsistent in making this decision, with some even basing their decision on a defendant’s appearance in the courtroom.
The plaintiffs in the case against New Orleans hope to make permanent changes to this system which they see so unfit.
They plan to ask for a class-action lawsuit, which would effectively mean the plaintiffs would represent a larger cause or group of people. In this case, they would represent those whom they believe have been unjustly jailed for not having the means to pay court fees in New Orleans.
The federal trial has been set for next January.