As New Orleanians are calling upon the Mayor to halt the expansion of our City's jail, two new reports were issued today showing that poor defendants are being jailed at increasingly alarming rates for failing to pay legal debts they can never hope to afford. "The City of New Orleans is incarcerating people simply because they are poor. Our City is in budgetary crisis. These reports make clear that we need to rethink who we are incarcerating. And we need to rethink this before sinking millions of dollars into a bigger jail," said Marjorie Esman, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana.
The reports, released by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Brennan Center for Justice, detail how in Louisiana and other states across the country, in the face of mounting budget deficits, courts are more aggressively going after poor people who have already served their criminal sentences. This undermines re-entry prospects, paving the way back to prison or jail and burdening the public with yet more costs.
The ACLU report, "In for a Penny: The Rise of America's New Debtors' Prisons," and the Brennan Center report, "The Hidden Cost of Criminal Justice Debt," show how the resurgent phenomenon of imprisoning people who are unable to pay fines and court fees is in fact counter-productive. While courts seek to balance their budgets by imposing financial penalties on people who lack the ability to pay, the cost to the system greatly exceeds the value of those fines when the poor are jailed for their inability to meet these financial requirements.
Here in New Orleans, for instance, Sean Matthews was assessed a fine of $498 for possession of marijuana. Homeless with no stable job, he was unable to pay and was imprisoned for almost five months. The judge finally waived his fees, but it cost the City of New Orleans $3201.77 for the five months of his incarceration - more than six times the $498 he was unable to pay.
There is nothing to suggest that aggressively seeking to collect unpaid legal debt actually makes any money - incarcerating indigent defendants for failing to pay their legal debts in fact ends up costing much more than courts can ever hope to recover. In one two-week period last May, for example, 16 men in New Orleans were sentenced to serve jail time for failing to pay legal debts. Their incarceration cost the city of New Orleans over $1,000 more than their total unpaid debt.
Yet because so many court and criminal justice systems are inadequately funded, judges view the collection of legal debt as a critical revenue stream for their courts. In New Orleans, for example, legal fines and fees make up nearly two-thirds of the criminal court's general operating budget. "This is not only unfair, it is also counterproductive," said Esman. "Funding courts on the backs of defendants makes no sense, because it creates an incentive for judges to impose fines without regard for the circumstances of the defendant or the facts of the case. Courts must be funded so that justice is truly impartial, which means that they must not rely on the fines they assess for basic operations."
A better system for funding courts, as recommended by the American Bar Association and the Conference of State Court Administrators, is for all fines and fees to be collected by the municipality, which would then fund the courts from general funds. This would allow the courts sufficient revenue to operate while removing the incentive for imposing high fees just to balance the budget.
Esman continued, "We have a ballooning City deficit. We are being asked to build thousands of additional jail beds. Every jail bed costs the city over $22 per day, plus medical costs. The Sheriff is seeking to increase that amount to $27. The City of New Orleans should not approve additional revenues for the jail until we make sure we are only incarcerating people who should be there. Jailing people just because they're poor is not a good use of public money. It's time to revisit our obsolete and broken system, to replace it with one that makes sense."
A copy of the ACLU report "In for a Penny: The Rise of America's New Debtors' Prisons," is available online here.