NEW ORLEANS — In hopes of avoiding a federal civil rights lawsuit over funding court transactions with fines and fees placed on predominantly poor defendants, Orleans Parish Criminal District Court (OPCDC) judges have voided $1 million in fees for court costs.
“The lawsuit seeks a declaration that the financial conflicts of interest permeating the OPCDC judge's debt-collection system violates the Due Process Clause,” Alec Karakatsanis, an attorney for the plaintiffs and founder and executive director of the Civil Rights Corps, told the Louisiana Record.
The judges are hoping that waiving the $1 million in fees will help them to avoid a lawsuit that threatens to malign their budget.
The lawsuit was filed in September 2015. The plaintiffs want the entire system of using fines and fees that to go toward the court’s budget to be declared unconstitutional. The plaintiffs also allege that it is a conflict of interest that state judges who find defendants guilty in court are supposed to help finance court operations. This does not include payment of judge’s salaries.
The defendants in the lawsuit are court Judicial Administrator Rob Kazik and Sheriff Marlin Gusman. The defendant list had included criminal district court judges, the city, clerk of court Arthur Morrell and Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell.
“For many years, impoverished people were routinely jailed in brutal conditions simply because they could not pay debts set by OPCDC judges who have a financial interest in that money," Karakatsanis said. "Those practices are flagrantly unconstitutional.”
The plaintiffs were allegedly jailed for over 72 hours each and did not get a hearing on payment of court fines and fees. According to the lawsuit, “the courts created an unconstitutional debtors' prison by jailing the defendants for failure to pay without giving them a hearing.”
Karakatsanis said the root of the case is the reality that OPCDC judges depend on bail money and convicting people of crimes to fund their own budgets.
“We want to see a legal system that doesn't depend on convictions to fund itself and a society in which no human being is placed a jail cell just because they cannot make a monetary payment,” Karakatsanis said.