Louisiana’s reliance on fines and fees to fund its justice system is ineffective, unfair and possibly unconstitutional and the legislature should make major changes in the current term, according to a state commission’s draft report.
The Louisiana Commission on Justice System Funding report says general government revenue primarily should fund the courts, not fines and fees. How much that will cost state government remains an open question. The current system encourages local jurisdictions to focus on debt collection rather than helping victims and reducing recidivism, the report says. The system is “void of basic notions of transparency and ripe for potential fraud from bad actors,” it continues.
The report recommends that lawmakers mandate uniform reporting by all entities that collect or receive money from fines and fees. Under the current system, the reporting methods and level of detail varies widely by jurisdiction, making it impossible for state auditors to determine how much money is being spent or verify that it is being spent the way it should be.“You can’t manage a problem until you can measure it,” Will Harrell, a criminal justice activist who served on the committee, said in an interview. “We simply don’t have the data yet to measure.”
Commission members also discussed changing the law to prevent offenders on probation or parole from being sent back to jail for failure to pay fines and fees, though there is some dispute about how often that actually happens. This approach is costly and inefficient, the report continues, as some jurisdictions spend more money to collect than they take in. In 2015, the city of New Orleans collected $4.5 million in fines and fees while spending $6.4 million to detain people who couldn’t pay.
Funding courts through fines and fees entrenches poverty and racial disparities, the report says. A 2017 federal report found that some communities target poor minority communities, jailing those who are unable to pay and undermining confidence in the judicial system.
And in two recent decisions, courts have found the user-funded justice system unconstitutional. The Fifth Circuit says the funding structure of the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court violates due process rights because it creates a temptation for judges to focus on raising money, not impartial justice.