Despite calls to follow the Justice Department’s decision to eventually stop sending inmates to for-profit prisons, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement needs the bed space to hold detainees, a five-member panel concluded in a report. Credit: Barnellbe/Wikimedia

A Louisiana judge accused of operating a modern-day debtors’ prison agreed Monday to stop jailing poor people who can’t pay court-ordered fines that fund his court.

The move comes less than one week after the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a federal class-action lawsuit against Judge Robert Black of the Bogalusa City Court.

The suit accuses Black of imposing illegal fees and jailing defendants who are unable to pay fines for traffic tickets and misdemeanors. The suit demands that Black stop incarcerating people who can’t pay up and seeks damages for those who paid the illegal fees. Black agreed to halt these practices in his courtroom until September, as settlement discussions for the lawsuit are underway, according to a joint agreement filed in federal court.

“Nobody should be jailed or threatened with jail if they are too poor to pay a fine,” Sam Brooke, deputy legal director at the Southern Poverty Law Center, said in a statement. “Funding the justice system on the backs of the poor is fundamentally unfair and creates a systemic incentive to find people guilty.”

The temporary reprieve is a welcome relief to people like Rozzie Scott.

Scott landed in Black’s courtroom in May after he stole $5 worth of food to feed his family. Black ordered him to pay $450 to the court, even after Scott told the judge he had no money.

The judge then gave Scott an ultimatum: The 21-year-old could either pay a $50 extension fee to buy himself time to scrape together the money he owed, or he would go to jail on the spot.

Scott told the judge he didn’t have $50. He was arrested and booked into the city jail, where he spent four hours behind bars. His cousin eventually brought $50 to the courthouse to release him.

Scott is free for now, but he still owes the Bogalusa City Court $450. He worries that could land him behind bars in the future if practices don’t change.

“I don’t have any income and cannot find a job,” Scott wrote in a statement to the court. He said he didn’t think Black would treat him fairly because “he only seems interested in getting money for the City Court.”

Black did not respond to calls for comment, but in a statement to The Times-Picayune said, “It is the court’s understanding that the collection of these or similar costs is utilized by other courts in Louisiana. Nevertheless, the court at this time has suspended this practice pending further review.”

Debtors’ prisons were outlawed in the U.S. almost 200 years ago, and a 1983 Supreme Court case ruled that jailing people for being too poor to pay a fine was unconstitutional. But in pockets of the country, modern-day debtors’ prisons are alive and well.

The problem is acute in Louisiana, according to a 2015 report by the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana. An advocate with the public defender in New Orleans Municipal Court said jailing people for being too poor to pay was “so common you stop noticing it,” according to the report. The ACLU found that in just a six-week period, more than 100 people were jailed for unpaid fines and that judges “routinely incarcerate people simply because they are too poor to pay fines and fees.”

Louisiana’s court funding system exacerbates the problem. The state does not adequately fund its courts and asks state and city courts to directly fund themselves through fees collected in civil and criminal cases. As a result, the majority of city courts in Louisiana now heavily rely on money they generate from these fees, not revenue from the state or local governments, according to a 2014 survey of Louisiana courts.

Bogalusa exemplifies what the Southern Poverty Law Center calls a “structural conflict of interest.” Money from the state, the Washington Parish government and the city of Bogalusa isn’t enough to cover the court’s operating costs – in 2014, the court was short $100,000. To make up the difference, the court heavily relies on court costs it generates from defendants for traffic violations and misdemeanors. About 15 percent of the court’s budget – or $57,000 in 2014 – comes from these fees and court costs.

“Without this money, the City Court could not function,” the lawsuit says. “The manner in which Defendants fund the City Court creates a structural conflict of interest between (Judge) Black’s duty to impartially adjudicate cases and his executive responsibility to raise money to pay for the City Court’s operating expenses.”

The lawsuit says Black lopped on additional – and illegal – fees in his courtroom. City courts in Louisiana are allowed to charge defendants fees that are spelled out in state law, but they can’t create new fines on their own – only the state Legislature has that authority. But the lawsuit says that’s what Black did.

In Black’s court, defendants had the option of paying a $50 extension fee – that didn’t go toward paying off the fine they already owed – to stay out of jail and buy themselves more time to cobble together the money to pay off their court debt. That extension fee is not written into state law, which means it’s illegal, according to the lawsuit. Plus, a 1972 case in the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals found that courts cannot impose “pay or stay” sentences that require a defendant to pay a fine at the time of sentencing or serve a jail term.

Black’s court collected this illegal $50 extension fee from at least 100 people in 2015, according to the lawsuit.

People who skipped their court date because they knew they wouldn’t be able to pay the fees end up accumulating even more debt. Black charged defendants “contempt fees” if they failed to appear at court to pay their fines in full. Jail logs show he gave people the option of serving 15 days in jail or paying a $250 cash bond if they missed their court date. In court, he would say that people could “buy their way out of jail” if they paid this fee, according to the lawsuit.

The Bogalusa City Court also refused to accept partial payments or allow any type of payment plan that might help poor people avoid jail time, according to the lawsuit.

Robert Levi couldn’t afford to pay a $150 fine in November 2015 when he pled guilty to two traffic violations. He avoided jail once by paying the $50 extension fee, but when he came back to court to pay off his full fine, he was $40 short, according to the lawsuit. When Levi asked if he could make a partial payment, a city court employee told him that it was all or nothing and that “he better call somebody” because the judge “is gonna lock you up.” Levi managed to borrow money from a friend to avoid jail time.

The 2015 ACLU report suggests a number of ways that courts in Louisiana could abolish debtors’ prisons and stop jailing poor people. They include establishing a sliding scale of affordable fines, requiring judges to consider a defendant’s financial situation in a hearing, and forcing judges to write a fiscal impact statement that compares the cost of jailing a person for his or her inability to pay to how much the defendant owes.

Amy Julia Harris can be reached at aharris@cironline.org. Follow her on Twitter: @amyjharris.

Amy Julia Harris

Amy Julia Harris is a reporter for Reveal, covering vulnerable communities. She and Reveal reporter Shoshana Walter exposed how courts across the country are sending defendants to rehabs that are little more than lucrative work camps for private industry. Their work was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in national reporting and won a Sigma Delta Chi Award for investigative reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists. It also led to four government investigations, including two criminal probes and four federal class-action lawsuits alleging slavery and fraud.

Harris was a Livingston Award for Young Journalists finalist for her investigation into the lack of government oversight of religious-based day cares, which led to tragedies for children in Alabama and elsewhere. In a previous project for Reveal, she uncovered widespread squalor in a public housing complex in the San Francisco Bay Area and traced it back to mismanagement and fraud in the troubled public housing agency.

Before joining Reveal, Harris was an education reporter at The Charleston Gazette in West Virginia. She has also written for The Seattle Times, Half Moon Bay Review, and Campaigns and Elections Politics Magazine.