Federal Court Strikes Down New Orleans’ Debtor Prison as Unconstitutional

Even after Congress abolished debtors’ prisons in 1833, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that they were unconstitutional in 1983, thousands of Americans still get imprisoned for failing to pay debts to the state.

However, that is coming to an end after he U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals made two unanimous decisions declaring that criminal court judges in New Orleans have an unconstitutional conflict of interest by collecting fines and fees.

In a piece for Forbes, Nick Sibilla highlights that the judges of the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court had “institutional interests” in collecting court revenue, which comprised a “substantial portion” of their budgets. Due to these circumstances, the judges “failed to provide a neutral forum,” which consequently infringed on the constitutional right to due process.

The first case, Cain v. White, involved about half a dozen criminal defendants who plead guilty and were then subject to fines and fees ranging from $148 to $901.50. When the defendants were not able to pay the fines, the OPCDC gave the greenlight on warrants for their arrest, incarcerated them, and set their bond at $20,000. The defendants would later spend two weeks incarcerated for simply not paying their court debts.

The fines and fees were kept in a “Judicial Expense Fund,” which the Orleans Parish judges have “exclusive authority” over. About 1/4 of the Fund’s revenue—approximately $1 million—comes from fines and fees that the court gathers. Although the judges can’t access the Fund for their own financial benefit, they can still use it to pay salaries and benefits for court personnel on top of other miscellaneous expenses such as conferences, coffee, drug testing, and pest control.

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Similarly, the second decision, Caliste v. Cantrell, dealt with a Louisiana law that transferred 1.8% of a commercial bail bond’s value towards the Fund in question. The Fifth Circuit made the following point:

The bond fees are a major funding source for the Judicial Expense Fund, contributing between 20–25% of the amount spent in recent years.

Eric Foley, an attorney at the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, which filed the Caliste lawsuit, declared “It is past time for money to be eliminated from the Orleans Criminal District Court’s consideration of pretrial release of presumptively innocent people.”

There is established judicial precedent for keeping money-hungry judges in check. These recent cases reaffirm that. Marco Lopez, an attorney with the Civil Rights Corps, which provided legal representation to the plaintiffs in Cain, told The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate “This ruling will help bring basic fairness to New Orleans’ criminal court and send a message to states, cities and counties across the country that seek to fund their criminal legal systems on the backs of their poorest citizens.”

Like civil asset forfeiture, which involves the state seizing assets of someone who allegedly participated in a crime without due process, the Orleans Parish debtor’s prison is part of a larger trend where courts are turned into ATMs. The Institute for Justice, a leader in criminal justice reform, wrote in amicus briefs for both cases that these practices create “an incentive for governments to use their municipal court and law enforcement systems, not to protect the public and do justice, but to generate revenue.”

This is just one front in the battle against policing for profit that liberty advocates will have to take up. The state is a power-hungry institution and will look for every means of possible of taking money away from peaceful individuals.

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