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

Under a settlement with the SPLC, the city court in Bogalusa, Louisiana, will stop jailing indigent defendants for failing to pay court debt – one of several reforms designed to ensure fairness for all people appearing before the court.

The agreement was approved today by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana. It resolves a lawsuit the SPLC filed against the Bogalusa city court in 2016 for operating what amounted to a modern-day debtors’ prison and for funding the court through fees levied against individuals found guilty. It described how the fees created an incentive for the judge to find people guilty and coerce payment through the threat of jail.

“We commend the Bogalusa City Court for voluntarily implementing these new procedures to ensure that no one is jailed simply because they are poor,” said Sam Brooke, SPLC deputy legal director.

Debtors’ prisons have been outlawed for nearly 200 years. In the United States, failure to pay a fine can, in some cases, lead to jail time, but the law requires a judge to first determine whether the person has the means to pay but “willfully” refuses.

Before the lawsuit, low-income people in Bogalusa – a town where 35 percent of residents live below the poverty line – were routinely jailed when they couldn’t afford to pay fees and fines for traffic tickets and misdemeanor offenses.

Judge Robert J. Black even created a $50 “extension fee” that defendants could pay to stay out of jail as they tried to raise money to pay off the debt. The illegal fee provided funding for the court.

Among other reforms, the city court will make a finding on the record to establish whether an individual is indigent at sentencing. It will also make an explicit finding that failing to pay was willful before jailing anyone for not paying.

Individuals who previously missed a court date will have an opportunity to clear any warrants and appear before the court. People unable to pay fines and costs owed to the court will be able to obtain payment plans or community service.

The city court will also transfer the money it previously retained to pay its expenses to the city of Bogalusa. The court will be 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 every person is treated fairly by the court.

One victim of the court’s previous practices was Bogalusa resident Rozzie Scott, who was jailed after he was unable to pay $450 in court debt for stealing $5 worth of food to feed his family.

Black never asked the 21-year-old Scott why he couldn’t pay before sending him to jail, where Scott remained until a family member paid the $50 extension fee.

“It is wrong to put me behind bars because I can’t afford it,” Scott said.

A previously announced settlement with the court allows people who paid the illegal extension fee after June 21, 2015, to obtain a refund by filing a claim with the city court.

The settlement’s reforms are consistent with broader reforms across the country, including in Montgomery and Alexander City in Alabama, which the SPLC also sued over such coercive practices.

In March, the SPLC joined nearly three dozen prominent civil rights and criminal justice groups to support federal legislation that would end unconstitutional debtors’ prison practices and cut federal funding from municipalities engaging in these practices.