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Elain Ellerbe | January 2, 2018
In a recent op-ed, Louisiana Republican Representative Tanner Magee, who was a major champion of the historic criminal justice reforms passed during the 2017 session, frankly stated that Louisiana’s court system is failing. No truer words were ever spoken and it is encouraging that someone such as Rep. Magee is willing to step up and speak the truth on Louisiana’s penchant for funding its criminal justice system on the backs of those people who are least able to pay. While funding the court system through fines and fees may not have been the original intent of Louisiana’s Legislature courts, that is unfortunately the harsh reality. In many cases, the courts and judges had no choice but to continue to tack on additional fines and fees to keep the courts operating.
The reason that the issue is finally getting attention here in the state, as well as nationally, is a ruling by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District, which includes Orleans Parish. In a suit filed two years ago by a group of former criminal defendants that sued the Orleans Parish Criminal Court challenging the court’s post-judgment debt collection practices, U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance issued her ruling in response to that suit. Stating that the present Louisiana court system is “unsustainable, unconstitutional and crying out for reform”, Judge Vance went further to say, “This conflict of interest … is the unfortunate result of the financing structure, established by governing law that forces the Judges to generate revenue from the criminal defendants they sentence. Of course, the Judges would not be in this predicament if the state and city adequately funded the courts.”
Rep. Magee was the sponsor of HB 249, which passed during the 2017 session and was a part of the criminal justice reforms. HB 249 requires courts, along with probation services, to tailor criminal justice fines and fees to the defendant’s ability to pay and if needed, create a payment plan for individuals who may have financial hardships. This bill now, Act 260, takes effect August 2018. While this new law was an outstanding first step, there is still much to be done to reform the way Louisiana fund’s not only its court system, but the criminal justice system overall.
Rep. Magee goes on to state in his op-ed that the federal court’s order is a “call to action for lawmakers because, these longstanding problems require a legislative fix.” Right on Crime could not agree more and we are looking forward to continuing to work with Rep. Magee and other key stakeholders during the coming year to start taking the next steps needed to, as Rep. Magee says “put us on a smarter path to financing our court system”.