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Inside New Orleans' 'Debtors' Prison' System

City courts have been banking on fines levied against defendants who can’t afford to pay them. A federal class-action lawsuit calls this illegal.
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People of meager resources in New Orleans have proven munificent donors for city judges. The copious amounts they pay in court fees and fines after arrested for the measliest of offenses have been enough to handsomely reward court coffers. Too many poor New Orleanians are literally shackled to this system of judicial financing, a system that civil rights advocates are arguing in a federal class-action lawsuit is illegal.

Long-time civil rights attorney Bill Quigley and the Equal Justice Under Law nonprofit are suing New Orleans Criminal District Court judges for perpetually issuing arrest warrants to those who can’t afford to pay court fines and who’ve not been given the chance to plead poverty. The lawsuit also seeks an injunction against the city’s sheriff’s office to stop them from serving those warrants. The lawyers argue that judges have been benefitting both administratively and personally from court fines that are much higher than what most defendants in the city can pay. Those jailed for missing payments on these fines end up adding to the city’s exceptional incarceration problem, resulting in an “unconstitutional and unjust modern debtors’ prison,” reads the complaint.