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SPLC, Bogalusa City Court reach partial settlement in debtors’ prison case

Louisiana’s Bogalusa City Court has agreed to issue $50 refunds to settle part of a federal lawsuit that describes how the court and a city judge operated a modern-day debtors’ prison by illegally jailing indigent people too poor to pay fines and court costs, the Southern Poverty Law Center announced today.

The court will issue a refund to people who, within the last two years, paid a $50 “extension fee” to receive more time to pay fines and court costs. The refund will be given to anyone who paid the fee on or after June 21, 2015, and completes a claim form by the city’s deadline. It’s estimated that 100 people could be eligible.

The SPLC filed the lawsuit in June 2016.

“We’re pleased the Bogalusa City Court will return money to people entangled in this harmful practice,” said Sam Brooke, SPLC deputy legal director. “Nobody should be jailed or threatened with jail if they are too poor to pay a fine. This agreement is an important step forward, but a small step. The rest of our case will go forward because we believe serious unconstitutional practices are likely to continue in the court.”

Judge Robert J. Black required anyone who needed additional time to pay fines and court costs to pay $50 as a condition of avoiding jail for nonpayment, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit describes how the judge created this illegal fee, which is not authorized by state law, to help fund the court.

One plaintiff in the case was jailed for being unable to pay a fine for stealing $5 worth of food to feed his family. He was released after a family member paid the extension fee.

The Bogalusa City Court relies on extension fees and court costs to cover funding shortfalls that range from 20 to 30 percent each year. The lawsuit alleges that the court’s reliance on these costs and fees creates a perverse and unconstitutional financial incentive for Black to find defendants guilty, charge illegal fees and jail them for nonpayment.

Despite the partial settlement, numerous issues remain, including whether the city court is adequately taking into account people’s ability to pay before punishing them for outstanding fines.

Individuals seeking a refund need to send a completed form to the Bogalusa City Court Clerk’s Office at 202 Arkansas Ave., Bogalusa, LA 70427. People who paid the extension fee on or after June 21, 2015, should receive a claim form in the mail at their last known address. Claim forms may also be obtained at the court clerk’s office.

After a completed form is verified, the court will issue a $50 check. It may be cashed for no fee at the Citizens Savings Bank at 1725 Sullivan Dr., Bogalusa, Louisiana 70427.

Anyone with questions about whether they are entitled to a refund may contact the Bogalusa City Court Clerk’s Office.

Photo Credit / Scott Threlkeld