As a city judge in Bogalusa, Louisiana, Robert Black told defendants charged with various traffic and other municipal criminal offenses they could stay out of jail even if they could not afford to pay their court fines right away. That is, just as long as they agreed to fork over a special $50 “extension” fee on top of what they already owed, according to a recently settled federal lawsuit.
This extra fee bought a little more time for defendants in a city where 35 percent of residents live below the poverty level, but it also proved crucial to the court’s own finances, according to lawsuit records.
The inherent structural conflict of interest between Judge Black’s roles as budget overseer and impartial adjudicator was at the heart of a recently settled lawsuit against him filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). In short, the SPLC argued Judge Black had a clear financial incentive to issue fines to raise money to cover court shortfalls.
The complaint detailed the case of one person the SPLC found who was ordered to spend 160 days in jail or pay a $724 cash fine.
“We commend the Bogalusa City Court for voluntarily implementing these new procedures to ensure that no one is jailed simply because they are poor,” Sam Brooke, SPLC deputy legal director, said in the settlement announcement.
Under the agreement, which the SPLC announced in a press release last month, attorneys said the court would stop jailing indigent defendants for failing to pay court debt. The settlement also called for the court to be funded through a budgeting process overseen by the city council, which presumably would eliminate the conflict of interest.
But short of sending monitors into the courtroom, how can anyone really know whether the reforms are being enacted? Here, the fine print of the settlement is worth reviewing. Among other reforms, the court must turn over income statements and budget proposals to the SPLC. And each time a defendant goes to jail for nonpayment of fines or court costs, the judge will have to provide the SPLC case specific records by close of business of the next day. What’s more, the settlement also calls for SPLC to get access to audio recordings of court hearings.
Years ago, Judge Black spoke a little about the court’s fee structure in a video interview with the town mayor, including an extensive explanation of the steep price people face for playing a boom box too loud if convicted or pleading guilty to municipal noise violation ($450 for a first offense).
More recently, Judge Black was quoted in a Bogalusa Daily News article accusing the SPLC of mischaracterizing his actions. However, he noted the court agreed to settle a portion of the lawsuit because the $50 extension fee was not property authorized, though “common practice of many courts in the State of Louisiana.”
If it’s true these so-called extension fees are, indeed, common practice across the state, it would hardly be a surprise to see more lawsuits to follow against other towns in Louisiana that fail to pay heed to what happened in Bogalusa.