Just over a year ago, the news was flooded with horror stories about courts in Ferguson, Missouri. They weren’t only talking about the shooting death of Michael Brown—they were also reporting on so-called ‘debtors’ prisons’ created in small towns as one of the factors that caused this unnecessary shooting. As a result of the shooting and allegations of debtors’ prison, the US Department of Justice investigated the court system. The Justice Department called on Ferguson to overhaul their criminal justice system, declaring that the city had engaged in constitutional violations, but did not prosecute any of the wrongdoers. In response, it is my opinion, that New Orleans and other city courts began to charge people larger fines and fees because they believe they are permitted to do it!
What is a Debtor’s Prison and What Happened in Ferguson?
Debtors’ Prisons are supposed to be illegal in the United States. A debtors’ prison is a prison for people who are unable to pay their debt. Sounds simple, but it gets complicated when the city actually starts to nickel and dime anyone who finds themselves charged with a crime or cited for a traffic ticket in New Orleans.
In Ferguson, residents could find themselves in jail (“debtors’ prison”) for failing to pay a $19 per month fee to the town’s trash contractor. This is just one of many petty fines that could snowball over months into court dates and outstanding warrants. Ferguson’s poverty level is high and therefore, if a resident is unable to pay the small fees, then they are now left with larger fees which they cannot pay – and that is how they land in jail.
New Orleans is Creating a Debtors’ Prison
This is not a system that accidentally lands its residents in jail. Tacking on fines through various law enforcement entities is one of the easiest ways to raise extra money when a municipal government is either strapped by cash – or wants to line some pockets.
Here are a few examples of how it seems that New Orleans has learned how to raise some capital, and ultimately will be creating a debtors’ prison to its own residents:
- Cops are writing traffic tickets for more violations at each stop; they are not just writing the speeding ticket, or the failure to stop, but they are also writing tickets for seatbelts, brake tags, registration, broken tail lights, reckless driving if driving too close to a line, and more.
- Courts are telling people to plead guilty and pay the fine, or they will go to trial. In Louisiana, traffic tickets are tried by the judge alone who serves as the judge, jury, and the person who imposes the fine. The judges, who are paid by the City, are incentivized to find more people guilty of more infractions to charge bigger fines for traffic tickets.
- Judges also impose fees for the prosecutor, the public defender, the witnesses, and even charging you for construction on the building! Most of these are new fees, and it seems that no matter what you want to do, you will get charged.
- In addition to any fee, you will pay to get your license back at the DMV, and the court also imposes a $25.00 fee to get a reinstatement letter before they’ll allow you to get your driver’s license back.
- If the court fees are not enough, remember that your insurance will go up when you’re convicted of a moving violation
When the Department of Justice did basically nothing to prosecute or stop the city of Ferguson from collecting fines and fees every which way, it was a big open door for other cities to follow suit. New Orleans City Officials are now finding a way to profit in big ways. From the Mayor to the NOPD to the Courts to the City’s Budget and back to the Mayor are profiting in some way or another!
Where is the Money Going?
Why would New Orleans want to profit off of their citizens? I think because they can. Although we have a thin Police Department, the city’s overall budget isn’t nearly that bad compared to Louisiana in general. These extra fees and fines are getting used to fund different agencies throughout the city, from the District Attorney’s office to the NOPD to the Prosecutors.
Sadly, there’s no indication that the money is being used to help pay the New Orleans Firefighters their outstanding judgment and pensions and it isn’t being used to fix streets in New Orleans. These fees are surely lining pockets and being mishandled.
What Can Citizens of New Orleans Do About This?
Read about the upcoming election, and exercise your right to vote. The right people can do the right thing, and we need to ensure that our citizens and residents have a good quality of life. We do not want to see our friends and family members out on the streets or in jail because the city is nickel and diming us until we can no longer afford to live in our great city.