Joel Schectman Wrote:The Return of Debtorsâ Prisons in Louisiana
...In separate efforts, the American Civil Liberties Union and Brennan Center for Justice at New York University spent a year observing court cases and interviewing hundreds of defenders, prosecutors, and the accused. The results, copies of which were released early to NEWSWEEK, show a troubling pattern of incarceration in at least 16 states, where even [highlight=#E6FF99]minor, nonviolent offenses such as speeding and loitering result in prison time[/highlight] for the poor.
The reason, according to the reports, is that courts indiscriminately slap fines on impoverished defendants, triggering an endless cycle of legal jeopardy. Failure to pay a ticket, for example, results in an arrest warrant, and a second failure to pay can lead to prison. The crime is coded as âcontemptâ for court or âfailure to appear,â making it hard to determine the total number of poverty-related sentences. But during the summer of 2009 in New Orleans Municipal Court, which the ACLU says is particularly hard-nosed, the group saw 33 cases of indigent defendants who had missed earlier court dates. Twenty-one ended up in jail for 60 days; the others paid their debts on the spot. The Brennan Center observed a similar ratio in Charlotte, N.C., last year, where about 250 defendants served four-day sentences for failure to pay. An uptick in laws that disproportionately affect the poor and the sheer complications of poverty (inflexible work schedules, unreliable transportation) only add to the number of cases.
[highlight=#E6FF99]But whatâs driving the sentences, at least in part, isnât morality so much as economics. In recent years, state funding has slowed for virtually every court in the country, making fines an essential means of keeping the gavel clapping. In a memo obtained by the ACLU, the Michigan courts administrator is brutally clear, reminding judges of âtough economic timesâ and urging a âculture shiftâ[/highlight] toward pay-or-prison collection tactics. In [highlight=#E6FF99]New Orleans, which relies on fee collection for as much as 40 percent of its budget[/highlight], Judge Paul Sens denies running a debtorsâ prison, saying that every defendant gets the option of community service, at least at first. But, he tells NEWSWEEK, over relying on court fees âcauses a problem,â [highlight=#E6FF99]appearing to force judges[/highlight] to take a harder line than they might otherwise. Thatâs one thing all parties agree on: for Lady Justice to be blind, she first needs enough money to be comfortable.
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