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A resolution passed last Thursday by the New Orleans City Council seeks to curb the imposition of fines and fees in criminal cases. The resolution formally ends the “user pay” system by incentivizing judges to not impose fines and fees because for every $1 imposed, $2 will be subtracted from city funding to the local criminal district courts.

The resolution, drafted by the Vera Institute of Justice’s New Orleans office, is not the first piece of legislation passed this year to address fines and fees in the city. During the 2020 legislative session, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards signed a new law ending the longstanding financial conflict of interest that was inherent in the city’s fines, fees, and bail systems. Prior to the law’s passage, money collected from fines, fees, and bail payments went directly towards funding the courts operations as well as to a Judicial Expense Fund managed by judges themselves. Under this new law, money collected from bail and court imposed fees will go directly to the city of New Orleans instead.

While a significant shift toward change, the legislation did not address the impact of fines and fees on indigent defendants and by extension, the broader New Orleans community. 

“Our bill was more concerned not about the financial conflict of interest, but about the harms that we know are created by fines and fees,” said Will Snowden, director of Vera Institute of Justice’s New Orleans office, in an interview with Prism. The idea for this new resolution emerged after realizing there needed to be legislation that disincentives judges from imposing fines and fees entirely.

“We believe we’ve put forward a model that discontinues the harms of fines and fees that are posed to New Orleans by judges simply not assessing the fines and fees to begin with,” said Snowden. “And this is a larger part of the conversation that our criminal legal systems should not be funded by the people that are coming through them.”

Snowden says typically it is family members or loved ones helping to make these payments and in New Orleans, the majority of those loved ones are Black women. Making the payments requires constant negotiating between whether to pay off fines and fees to the court or instead pay for other basic necessities like rent, utility bills, or car notes. Outside of those immediate needs, unpaid fines and fees can also adversely impact one’s credit score, leaving an imprint on their financial and social well-being long after a case has been closed. This new resolution, Vera projects, will keep $3.5 million annually in the pockets of New Orleanians who are involved either directly or tangentially in the criminal legal system.

The passage of this resolution will not only materially impact the lives of New Orleanians but it also works toward undermining commonly held assumptions that have allowed the use of fines and fees to proliferate across the country. Fines, whose use has ballooned amidst a widened net of prosecutable offenses, have been viewed as a legitimate—and sometimes the only viable—way to fund court systems.

“There was a judge that said ‘the courts gotta eat,’ and they viewed fines and fees as a legitimate source for them to operate the court. I think that notion has been so normalized to the structure of our criminal legal system that even the idea that a different funding structure should be considered just wasn’t palatable,” Snowden said.

With this new resolution however, Snowden says it is clear that there are alternate models for funding the criminal legal system that are not only more just, but more reliable as well. Under the resolution, the city council is not just discouraging the use of fines and fees, but also committing to fully fund the courts from the city budget.

While the dimensions of fines and fees in New Orleans and throughout Louisiana have in part been shaped by specific local and state legislation, advocates across the country are seeking to eliminate “user pay” funded court systems in their own communities. For these advocates, this resolution and its success in reversing the incentive structures that have allowed courts to profit off largely indigent defendants might be an effective and replicable model. However, Snowden says that other individuals hoping to make change must first recognize the relationship between poverty and crime.

“If we in fact want to reduce the vulnerability of our families that find themselves in the lower echelon of our socioeconomic strata, then this type of policy [that keeps] money in the homes of families that need it are going to have positive collateral consequences in terms of public safety,” said Snowden. “Understanding that correlation is really vital. Too often we are so reactionary to incidents of crime in our city that we aren’t really zooming out beyond the individual incidents and seeing more broadly, what are the policies and practices that are contributing to this environment of producing crime in the first place.”

Tamar Sarai

Tamar Sarai is a features staff reporter at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @bytamarsarai.