Lawsuit: New Orleans Runs Modern 'Debtors' Prison'

System targeting poor is 'illegal, unconstitutional, and unjust': complaint
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 18, 2015 12:48 PM CDT
Lawsuit: New Orleans Runs Modern 'Debtors' Prison'
No money, no freedom in Orleans Parish, suit alleges.   (Shutterstock)

Six plaintiffs filed a federal class-action lawsuit yesterday against Louisiana's Orleans Parish for instituting what amounts to an "illegal, unconstitutional, and unjust modern debtors' prison" for people who fail to pay court fines over what are often minor offenses, the New Orleans Advocate reports. The complaint alleges individuals are thrown in the slammer until they can either pay the fines or a preset $20,000 bond—a system said to unfairly target the poor and violate the Fourth and 14th amendments. A collections department that goes after the convicted doesn't take into account individuals' ability to pay, and partial payment won't do, says the suit, per the New York Times.

This "creates a culture of fear among indigent people ... who borrow money at high interest rates, divert money from food for their children, and cash their family members' disability checks in a desperate attempt" to avoid jail, the suit claims. Critics say judges have a conflict of interest because they actually benefit from the fines—the money goes into the Judicial Expense Fund. The Orleans Parish court isn't the only one accused of this type of impropriety: The Advocate points out this has been happening in jurisdictions nationwide, including in Ferguson, Missouri. (Deadbeat dads may not be able to break this type of cycle, either.)

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