A city court judge in Bogalusa, Louisiana, is operating a modern-day debtors’ prison by illegally jailing indigent people unable to pay fines or court costs – including a man fined for stealing $5 worth of food to feed his family, according to a federal lawsuit filed today by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The federal lawsuit describes how Judge Robert J. Black routinely sends people to jail for failure to pay fines or court costs for minor traffic tickets or misdemeanor violations without determining why they can’t pay. The court is significantly funded through court costs and fees, creating an incentive for the judge to find people guilty and coerce payment through the threat of jail, according to the lawsuit. The court operates in a city where 35 percent of residents live below the poverty line.
“Bogalusa’s court system is funded off the backs of the poor,” said Sam Brooke, SPLC deputy legal director. “Judge Black has a structural incentive to wring out every fine and fee possible from defendants before him. Judges should not be extorting money out of defendants to keep the lights on in their courtroom.”
Black has even created an illegal $50 “extension fee” defendants can pay to stay out of jail while they raise money to pay the fees and fines they still owe the court. The extension fee, which is not authorized by state law, is used to raise money for the court. Overall, court costs and fees have been used to cover budget shortfalls within the Bogalusa court system ranging from 20 to 30 percent.
Debtors’ prisons were outlawed in the United States nearly 200 years ago. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1983 ruling in Bearden v. Georgia found judges can’t send people to jail for being too poor to pay court fines. A judge must first consider whether the defendant has the ability to pay but “willfully” refuses.
Rozzie Scott, a 21-year-old Bogalusa resident, spent time in jail after he was unable to pay $450 in fines and court costs for stealing $5 worth of food from a local store to feed his family. Scott, who was released 4 hours later after his cousin paid the $50 extension fee, is afraid he will be sent back to jail if he doesn’t pay his fines and court costs before July 25.
Black never asked Scott if he worked or why he couldn’t pay. He told other defendants they would go to jail if they couldn’t pay their fines and court costs or the extension fee.
“I am so scared I am going to be sent to jail again because I don’t have the money to pay my fines,” said Scott, who is a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “It is wrong to put me behind bars because I can’t afford it.”
Robert Levi, another plaintiff, could not afford to pay $465 he owed in fines and fees after a traffic violation. He avoided jail by paying the $50 extension fee with money he had saved to pay for other bills. When he returned to court in March to pay off his fines and costs, he was $40 short. A city court employee told him that the judge does not take partial payments and that “he better call somebody” because the judge “is gonna lock you up.”
Levi avoided jail time by borrowing money from a friend.
The lawsuit, which names the judge and the city court as defendants, seeks class action status and a preliminary injunction to block the judge’s unconstitutional practices.
In March, the SPLC joined nearly three dozen prominent civil rights and criminal justice groups in support of federal legislation that would end unconstitutional debtors’ prison practices and cut federal funding from municipalities engaging in these practices.
Cover Image: Scott Threlkeld