People awaiting trial before a criminal court in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, were coerced into paying hundreds of dollars to a company before they were released from jail – even after they had paid their bail, according to a federal lawsuit filed last night by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the ACLU of Louisiana.
“This is a disturbing example of our justice system being twisted beyond recognition by a scheme to make money,” said Sam Brooke, SPLC deputy legal director. “People who had already paid their bail were held ransom and extorted out of hundreds and thousands of dollars. They simply wanted their freedom while they awaited their day in court. That desire was exploited by Rehabilitation Home Incarceration.”
In 2015 and 2016, more than 300 people were assigned to the company by 19th Judicial District Judge Trudy A. White. She often made these orders for indefinite periods of supervision without determining whether people were a flight risk or posed any danger. She did not assess their ability to pay the company’s signup fee of $525 and its subsequent monthly fees and other charges.
One plaintiff, Kaiasha White (no relation to the judge), was forced to stay in jail for a month as she and her family struggled to pay both her bond and the company’s signup fee. The jail would not release her until the company said its fee had been paid.
“This practice needs to stop,” White said. “When you have to go to court, you shouldn’t have to worry about being held for ransom because a business wants to profit off of you.”
Henry Ayo, another plaintiff, was jailed for two months because he and his wife couldn’t afford to pay his bond and the signup fee. After paying for his release, Ayo was informed by the company that he had to pay $225 a month while awaiting trial, or he could be arrested and jailed again.
Ayo and his wife paid the company approximately $1,000. The only supervision he received was being required to make phone calls that often went unanswered.
“This is predatory and illegal. Rehabilitation Home Incarceration puts its own price on people’s liberty and forces them to pay up, over and over again,” said Brandon Buskey, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project. “Worse, this could not happen without the court and the jail enabling this scam, and ignoring the rights of those charged and presumed innocent.”
The lawsuit accuses Dunn, Rehabilitation Home Incarceration’s executive director, of operating an illegal racketeering enterprise under Louisiana and federal law through his company. It also accuses the company and the East Baton Rouge Parish of violating people’s Fourth and 14th Amendment rights. It raises additional state law claims of unjust enrichment and conversion, as well as a violation of the Louisiana Unfair Trade Practices Act.
Judge White and others associated with Rehabilitation Home Incarceration are political allies. Cleve Dunn Sr. was paid for marketing services for the judge’s 2014 re-election campaign. His son, Cleve Dunn Jr., served as chairman of the judge’s re-election campaign committee.
“The people of Baton Rouge should not be forced to support private companies in order to secure their release from jail,” said Marjorie R. Esman, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana. “Those awaiting their day in court are entitled to be treated equally regardless of the size of their bank accounts. Instead, people have been jailed and extorted after their release simply because they couldn’t pay a private business and its owners. That is not how our system of justice is supposed to work.”
The lawsuit seeks to recover damages. It is part of the SPLC’s economic justice efforts to ensure that people are not punished or exploited due to their economic status.