Throughout this week, National Public Radio has broadcast stories about how America’s 21st century criminal justice system sometimes resembles an 18th century debtor’s prison. As Court Watch NOLA volunteers know, defendants pleading guilty in New Orleans are frequently assessed hundreds if not thousands of dollars in fines and fees that they may not ever be able to repay. When these defendants can’t make a scheduled payment, some choose (wrongly) to not show up for court at all, leading to their rearrest and incarceration, all on the taxpayer dime. On top of this, indigent defendants in Louisiana must also pay to get a public defender, creating a perverse incentive system, as Chief Orleans Public Defender Derwyn Bunton described in one of the NPR stories.
While it may be tempting to blame these problems on Judges because they are the ones imposing fines and fees on poor defendants, the Court often has no choice but to do so, either because they are required to by statute or because the Court relies on this funding to operate. Put simply, no one person or group of people is to blame, and Louisiana does not yet have an answer to this complex problem. But understanding the problem is the first step towards fixing it, and NPR’s series, along with the longtime work of dozens of committed local reformers, is doing good work by raising public awareness of it.