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New Orleans' poorest residents are being forced to pay funds or be jailed indefinitely, the lawsuit claims. (Photo: Edward Corpuz/flickr/cc)

New Orleans Running 'Modern Debtors Prison,' Lawsuit Charges

Judges, city officials, and others charged with building "illegal, unconstitutional and unjust" criminal court system

Nadia Prupis

A federal class action lawsuit filed Thursday in Louisiana says Orleans Parish has resurrected unconstitutional "debtors' prisons" by routinely jailing the region's poorest residents over their inability to pay court fees and other fines.

The lawsuit, filed against the Orleans Parish District Criminal Court, says New Orleans officials use "jail and threats of jail to collect court debts from thousands of the city's poorest people," leading to "an illegal, unconstitutional and unjust modern debtors' prison," the likes of which were ruled to violate the 14th Amendment in 1983.

Moreover, those taken into custody found themselves left without "notice of how or when they would be released or when a hearing would be held."

The suit takes aim at the city's sheriff's office and court officials for participating in what it calls an "illegal scheme" to jail debtors until they collect enough money to pay off fines or a pre-set $20,000 bond—funds which then go directly to the court's Judicial Expense Fund, which the suit says constitutes a conflict of interest for judges. More than 80 percent of defendants in Orleans Parish criminal court qualify as indigent.

Such unconstitutional systems have come under increasing scrutiny in recent years. A similar lawsuit earlier this year in Missouri forced one notorious judge in Ferguson to resign just a month after the claim was filed.

In Thursday's suit, plaintiff Alana Cain detailed her experience being arrested and jailed for missing scheduled payments without being given a chance to plead poverty. Cain in 2013 pleaded guilty to theft after a ring went missing at the law firm where she cleaned floors after hours.

The New Orleans Advocate writes:

[Cain] was ordered to pay more than $1,000 in fees, court records show, including $600 to the Judicial Expense Fund.

According to the lawsuit, the court’s Collections Department set up a payment plan, for which she was late once, citing poverty. Cain was pulled over last March on a traffic stop and jailed on a warrant for failure to pay the fees, the lawsuit states. She had some money on her, but her plea fell on deaf ears, the lawsuit states.

After a week in jail, Cain appeared in court, and the judge “told her that if she ever missed a payment again, she would have to spend 90 days in jail,” the lawsuit states.

"The environment of threats of jail and actual jailing creates a culture of fear among indigent people and their families, who borrow money at high interest rates, divert money from food for their children, and cash their family members’ disability checks in a desperate attempt to...avoid indefinite confinement," the suit continues.

And judges' pursuit of debtors' money "has corrupted the basic delivery of justice and resulted in pervasive conflicts of interest and rampant constitutional violations in the procedures for collecting those debts after cases are closed."


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