This article by Elain Ellerbe originally appeared in The Advocate June 4th, 2018.
In the Legislature’s last session, House Bill 249 passed that allows judges to waive or provide alternatives to some fines and fees if payment would cause financial hardship. This bill prevents taxpayers from footing the cost of jailing people simply because they couldn’t pay. After negotiations this year, that bill likely won’t be implemented until 2019.
The concern: Louisiana’s criminal justice system relies on funding from court fines and fees. However, evidence shows the current “user pay” system leaves huge budget shortfalls among different agencies.
Public defenders are woefully underfunded by the state while district attorneys’ offices maintain high state funding allocations, creating a lopsided system of justice in the Pelican State.
In 2017, the state allocated only $22.6 million to service all 42 public defender offices. An additional $32.4 million in funding was derived almost exclusively from fines and fees. In other words, nearly 60 percent of all funding for public defenders comes from the very people who cannot afford a private attorney.
The Legislative Auditor’s Office recently found that in 2014, funding for all 42 district attorney’s offices was $142.5 million ($52.18 million for public defender’s office that year). However, this is likely a lowball estimate as many districts did not fully report all funding received.
A major beneficiary of fines, fees, and court costs are the courts themselves. In Orleans Parish in 2015, the Criminal District Court, Municipal Court, and Traffic Court received 52 percent of all fines, fees, and costs collected from defendants. This amounted to 18 percent of the municipal court budget, 32 percent of the criminal district court budget, and 99 percent of the traffic court budget. A recent court case in federal court determined this is a conflict of interest and must be addressed.
The chief justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court, Bernette Johnson, recently discussed how this “user pays” system creates distrust: “Would you have faith in the system if you knew that every single actor in the criminal justice system — including the judges, the district attorneys, the court-appointed lawyers — everybody relied upon a steady stream of guilty pleas and verdicts to fund the office?”
The amounts charged to defendants vary greatly depending on the type of offense and the court where the sentencing took place. For example, a recent report by the Vera Institute showed Orleans Parish charges an average of $460 in fines and fees for non-felony offenses as compared to $228 for people sentenced in municipal court. This is on top of bail, probation, and parole fees.
These costs can add up to thousands of dollars for people who are generally on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. They often feel forced to choose between paying their fines and fees or paying for necessities such as rent, food, and clothing. Although unconstitutional, Louisiana has a history of jailing folks for failing to pay fines and fees even when they cannot afford to do so. In 2015, in New Orleans alone, 536 individuals were jailed because of unpaid fines and fees.
Even if HB 249 becomes law, it still leaves thousands of people in a cycle of poverty, which increases their chances of engaging in criminal activity. This is not good for public safety.
At the request of state Rep. Tanner Magee, the legislative auditor will look into how fines and fees fund Louisiana court systems. This should hopefully spur legislative change.
Properly appropriating funding for our criminal justice system, and taking perverse incentives out of revenue collection, will provide greater justice, public safety, and economic prosperity for all Louisianans.