Debtors' prison is illegal, immoral and financially irresponsible say the ACLU and the Tulane Criminal Law Clinic ("Clinic") in a federal lawsuit filed on March 6. Representing a poor person charged with the municipal offense of "begging" and jailed because he could not immediately pay a fine, the ACLU and the Clinic seek to stop this routine practice of the municipal court judges.
"Sentencing poor suspects to alternative "pay or stay" sentences means the rich pay to get out of jail and go home, while the poor stay in and overcrowded Orleans Parish Prison to pay off the debt with jail time," said Joe Cook, Executive Director, ACLU of Louisiana. "This is illegal and un-American; the United States Supreme Court and the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled long-ago to prohibit this unfair and immoral practice. It's past time for New Orleans to comply with the fundamental principle that rich and poor alike should be treated equally under the law."
The lawsuit's named Plaintiff, Percy Dear, is a striking example of how "pay or stay" sentences make for unfair rulings and bad public policy. Mr. Dear, who is illiterate, homeless and epileptic, spent thirteen-months in jail for a 2005 municipal trespassing charge, after he was evacuated from the Orleans Parish Prison in the wake of Katrina. After his release, Mr. Dear, who faces mental health issues, struggled to meet his basic needs. He was arrested on February 20 and charged with begging. When he appeared before the municipal court, he was found guilty and ordered to immediately pay $200 or serve a twenty (20) day jail sentence.
Pamela Metzger, Director of the Tulane Criminal Law Clinic, said, "In a post-Katrina New Orleans, "pay or stay" sentences are more than bad legal decisions - they are bad policy. The ACLU and the Clinic estimate that the City pays almost $23.50 per day to house municipal offenders whose crimes, such as begging, public intoxication, or obstruction of public passage ways, are too insignificant to merit state prosecution. When the City spends its money on incarceration, instead of job training, drug treatment, or mental health resources, it shortchanges the Orleans Parish taxpayers. It is our hope that the City will take notice of this suit and provide the municipal court judges with meaningful sentencing and services alternatives to the illegal 'pay or stay' system."
Explained Metzger, "The average municipal court defendant is more likely to benefit from help getting the magic three -- 'beds, meds, food' -- than from a punitive jail sentence. Here, the City spent nearly $500 to incarcerate Mr. Dear because he couldn't afford to pay a $200 fine. The fiscal irresponsibility is staggering."
Katie Schwartzmann, Staff Attorney, ACLU of Louisiana noted, "Like Mr. Dear, many other municipal "pay or stay" victims suffer from mental and medical health problems or homelessness. The taxpayers of New Orleans would get a better payoff if the City spent its money on social services instead of a revolving door jail cell. Sheriff Gusman's 2007 budget request to the City was $38 million. That money should be spent wisely -- not frittered away on jail sentences for those who need services, not cells."
Case number 2:07-cv-1186 has been assigned to Federal District Judge Ivan Lemelle. See the complaint here