Who should pay for user fees?

Posted on August 10, 2018

Louisiana’s cash-strapped court system relies heavily on fines and fees imposed on defendants to make up for the lack of financial support from city and state government. These ‘user fees’ disproportionately affect low-income individuals, who too often end up in jail because of an inability to pay. This issue became front in center in New Orleans as two federal judges ruled that the fines and fees system at the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court is unconstitutional, citing a 1983 decision that bars states from arresting or detaining a defendant solely for failing to pay court costs. The Advocate editorial board weighs in:

We disagree with the premise that everyone locked up faces jail time “just because they’re poor.” In fact, many of the defendants are in court because they did, indeed, break the law. Still, the judges are supposed to follow the rules, and the rules set by the U.S. Supreme Court and reiterated by Fallon and others at the federal courts, require at the least a change in processes in the system. But that won’t alter the ultimate problem of how to pay for necessary public services like courts. And let’s not even get into the difficulties jurisdictions like Baton Rouge and others across the state have with funding prisons, another necessity that politicians and taxpayers are reluctant to pay for.


Trump and JBE talk prison reform
Gov. John Bel Edwards was among a group of governors and attorney generals from across the nation who met with President Donald Trump on Thursday to discuss prison reform. Edwards discussed the criminal justice reforms recently implemented in Louisiana, which among other things, shortened sentences for some nonviolent, non-sex-crime offenders who receive credit for good behavior. Edward was the only democrat invited to the meeting, also invited Trump to tour Angola prison. The Advocate’s Elizabeth Crisp reports:

“We’re excited about what we are doing,” Edwards told Trump during a portion of the roundtable discussion that was open to the media. “For the first time in 20 years I can tell you Louisiana doesn’t have the highest incarceration rate in the nation.” … “I look at guys like John Bel Edwards in Louisiana — represents a different party than I do in Kentucky, in terms of our political affiliation, but this is something that we’re very much of like mind on,” [Matt] Bevin said during the discussion. “And I think this transcends anything political.”

While there is bipartisan agreement on criminal justice reform, Sen. John Kennedy and Attorney General Jeff Landry still oppose the policies that have helped Louisiana shed the dubious title of ‘world’s prison capital.’ The inimitable Jim Beam explains how opponents of the reforms are making cynical attacks without offering any solutions of their own.

The DOC responded this week to Kennedy and Landry and some district attorneys in the state who also oppose the reform effort. The department said some of the released prisoners got out under a goodtime release program and they are required to let them go. In its news release, the DOC said the real issue is a front-end problem. “The D.A.s should not plead people down to lesser nonviolent offenses in order to get a high conviction rate,” the release said. “And if they do choose this method, they cannot complain when the law governing the conviction imposes a shorter sentence than that of the original charge.


Wage gap continues
August 7 was Black Women’s Equal Pay Day. This day was chosen because it marks how long into the year a black woman would have to work in order to be paid the same wages as her white, male counterpart. Louisiana is all too familiar with the wide wage gap between men and women, especially women of color. According to the National Partnership for Women & Families a black woman employed full-time, year-round in Louisiana is paid roughly $29,426 less annually than a white, non-Hispanic man. Madison Matthews and Valerie Wilson from the Economic Policy Institute look at these troubling disparities and possible solutions.

But even if changing jobs were an effective way to close the pay gap black women face—and it isn’t—more than half would need to change jobs in order to achieve occupational equity. … Moving toward a more integrated workforce would not just create social benefits of greater racial and gender diversity in the workplace, but also narrow wage gaps and create greater economic mobility for black women. When occupational segregation occurs, it typically imposes an economic penalty on black women because, on average, they are segregated into lower-paying jobs while white men are segregated into higher-paying jobs.


Few denied SSDI applicants return to work
Very few people who are denied Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) return to work, this according to new research from Mathematica Policy Research. Researchers Jody Schimmel Hyde and April Wu tracked beneficiaries who were rejected at the initial level (their state’s Disability Determination Service, or DDS) and found that only about half of the people sampled received SSDI. The beneficiaries are denied because it is determined they are not severely impaired, severely impaired but could do past work, or severely impaired but could do other work. Kathy Ruffing from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities breaks down the research in a new blog.

The new study adds to a body of research that has found dim labor-market and economic outcomes for denied SSDI applicants. A pioneering 1989 Government Accountability Office study documented that people denied SSDI benefits in the harsh Reagan-era crackdown seldom worked again, suffered steep earnings declines if they did work, and had high poverty rates. In short, many denied applicants suffer great economic harm from their disability but nevertheless don’t qualify for benefits. Indeed, the United States has some of the most stringent eligibility criteria for disability benefits among advanced economies, and it spends less than most. SSDI cushions but hardly eliminates the losses that breadwinners face when they suffer a severe impairment.


Number of the Day
$29,426 – Annual wage gap for a black woman employed full-time, year round in Louisiana compared to her white, male counterpart. (Source: National Partnership for Women & Families)


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