Individuals released from prison and returning home face a number of obstacles that can hurt their chance at successful reentry. One of those obstacles is the burden of having to pay fines and fees associated with their criminal convictions. Fortunately, during the 2017 Legislative Session, Louisiana lawmakers acted on the advice of criminal justice reform advocates by overwhelmingly passing HB 249, which provides payment options for individuals who have racked up debt from fines and fees associated with the justice system.
HB 249, authored by Representative Tanner Magee—one of the many Republican legislators who stepped up to champion the Justice Reinvestment legislation package—crafted the legislation to accomplish four key elements:
Ability to pay. For felony defendants, courts will now be required at sentencing to determine whether payment in full of criminal justice financial obligations would cause the defendant or their dependents substantial financial hardship.
Creation of a payment plan. When hardship is found, the new law directs courts to waive financial obligations or create a single payment plan with monthly payments of one day’s pay. If ordered, half of each payment on a payment plan will go toward victim restitution.
Incentives to pay. Additionally, the law provides an option that incentivizes consistent payments with a debt forgiveness reward for those who pay every month for 12 months or half of their supervision term – whichever is longer.
Penalties for failure to pay. To ensure that individuals are held accountable for their debts, yet not prevented from earning wages, the new law restricts the use of incarceration and driver’s license suspension as penalties only for cases involving willful failure to pay, as opposed to an honest inability to pay. The law also limits the extension of a person’s probation supervision term to a single six-month extension when the court makes certain findings on the record—and only for the purpose of collecting unpaid victim restitution.
HB 249 is a very good start to reforming areas of Louisiana’s criminal justice system that have for so long prevented successful reentry for returning citizens. However, while this legislation does better ensure payment of fines and fees, it does not address why Louisiana’s fines and fees are so onerous. That issue, and how Louisiana funds its court system overall, warrants further investigation and action on the part of Louisiana’s lawmakers.
Criminal justice stakeholders and advocates would do well to raise this issue now as we begin to prepare for the 2018 Legislative Session.