SPLC and Bogalusa Municipal Court reach settlement in debtors’ jail case
The agreement was approved today by the US District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana. It resolves a lawsuit the SPLC filed against the Bogalusa Municipal Court in 2016 for operating a modern debtor’s prison and funding the court through fees collected from those found guilty. It described how the fees created an incentive for the judge to find people guilty and force payment by threat of jail.
“We commend the Bogalusa City Court for voluntarily implementing these new procedures to ensure that no one is imprisoned simply because they are poor,” said Sam Brooke, SPLC associate legal director.
Debtors’ prisons have been banned for nearly 200 years. In the United States, failure to pay a fine can result in jail time in some cases, but the law requires a judge to first determine whether the person has the means to pay but “willfully” refuses.
Prior to the lawsuit, low-income people in Bogalusa — a city where 35 percent of residents live below the poverty line — were routinely jailed if they could not afford to pay fees and fines for speeding tickets and misdemeanors.
Judge Robert J. Black even enacted a $50 “extension fee” that defendants could pay to get out of jail while trying to raise money to pay off the debt. The court funded the illegal fee.
Among other reforms, the city court will make a finding on the record to determine if a person is destitute at sentencing. It will also specifically state that the non-payment was intentional before someone is jailed for non-payment.
Individuals who have previously missed a court date have the opportunity to clear any warrants and appear in court. Individuals unable to pay fines and costs owed to the court may receive payment plans or community service.
The Municipal Court will also remit to the City of Bogalusa the money it previously withheld to pay its costs. The court is funded through a budgeting process overseen by the city council—a change that eliminates any potential conflict over the court’s funding and helps ensure that each individual is treated fairly by the court.
One victim of the court’s past practices was Rozzie Scott of Bogalusa, who was jailed after failing to pay a $450 court debt for stealing $5 worth of groceries to support his family.
Black never asked 21-year-old Scott why he couldn’t pay before sending him to jail, where Scott stayed until a family member paid the $50 renewal fee.
“It’s wrong to put me behind bars because I can’t afford it,” Scott said.
A previously announced settlement with the court allows individuals who paid the illegal renewal fee after June 21, 2015 to obtain a refund by filing a lawsuit in municipal court.
The settlement reforms are consistent with broader reforms across the country, including in Montgomery and Alexander City in Alabama, which the SPLC is also suing for such coercive practices.
In March, the SPLC joined nearly three dozen prominent civil rights and criminal justice groups in supporting federal legislation that would end unconstitutional debtor prison practices and cut federal funds from communities involved in these practices.