Public defenders’ offices in Louisiana get much – an in some cases, all – of their funding from fines and fees. For the low-income people that rely on public defenders because they can’t afford private attorneys, these same fines and fees can be the source of crushing debt.
Under Louisiana’s “user-pays” justice system, courts fine people as punishment for minor crimes such as traffic and municipal code violations and misdemeanors. In addition to initial fines, courts impose a variety of fees, including, in some jurisdictions, $100 fees to cover court costs and $20 credit card processing fees.
Things can quickly spiral downward for people who can’t pay. In one New Orleans case, a group of criminal defendants spent up to two weeks behind bars, with a bond of $20,000, simply for a failure to pay court-ordered fines and fees.
For people experiencing financial hardship, fines and fees can create a cycle of debt. A person who can’t cover an initial $100 for court costs can find those costs compounded by late fees, saddling them with consequences that far exceed their initial punishment. This destabilizes entire families and the communities where they live.
This happens particularly frequently in communities of color, which are drained of financial resources as people try to pay back exorbitant amounts of increasing debt. Some courts suspend defendants’ drivers licenses as punishment for not paying on time. This furthers the cycle of debt by forcing defendants, who depend on employment to pay back their court debt, to drive without a license and potentially be subjected to further fines or even prison time.
A 2019 report from the Louisiana Legislative Auditor shows that 22 of our 41 Judicial District Court (JDC) Public Defender Offices are at least 50% funded by fines and fees.
The report found that in three Louisiana judicial districts, public defender offices are not only entirely dependent on revenue from fines and fees, but the revenue levied by their JDCs through fines and fees exceeds expenditures. Two of these three districts do not receive any funding from the state. While fines and fees are a convenient funding source for cash-strapped districts, they leave low-income communities to carry the burden of funding public defender offices.
In 1983, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Bearden v. Georgia that a jail sentence for the inability to pay a fine is not equitable. However, a defendant’s ability to pay is still not widely considered by judges.
Criminal justice reform advocates have since called for judges to take into account ability to pay when assigning fees to defendants. As attorney Niles B. Haymer explained in a personal interview, “this system feeds into debtors’ prisons that penalize the poor. There should be a sliding scale regarding fines, fees, and bail.”
Louisiana’s dependence on fines and fees to fund public defender offices interferes with a defendant’s constitutional right to an attorney. A client-dependent funding scheme places well-intentioned public defenders in conflicting positions. In Louisiana’s under-funded public defender offices, the salaries of attorneys depend on fines and fees despite the fact that it’s their indigent clients who face potential incarceration for failure to pay.
Local governments throughout Louisiana – particularly in rural areas – are struggling to raise revenue to provide basic services to their constituents. Some have had to take out loans to pay ongoing expenses. The overreliance on fines and fees to fund public defenders is a symptom of that struggle.
But the very system that is meant to protect Americans’ right to due process should not also prey on the most vulnerable. Fines and fees are a huge barrier to low-income communities and people of color. Poverty is not a crime, and an unpaid traffic ticket should not become a barrier to employment. While fines and fees have a place in the criminal justice system, Louisiana should consider more equitable ways to fund public defenders. This could include more funding from the state, and requiring courts to consider a defendant’s ability to pay before imposing a fine.
By reducing or removing financial barriers imposed by courts, people in low-income communities would have the opportunity to find better jobs, update their licenses and other legal documents, and be with their families at home rather than in jail for being poor.
-By Rachel Lane
For more information on how fines and fees contribute to poverty and discriminate against communities of color in Louisiana, check out: