Letter: Debtors prison unconscionable

Re: “Bill would add fine in bench warrant arrests”

The proposal to impose a fine on those arrested for failure to appear in city court looks reasonable on the surface, as a way to fund the office tasked with locating people who ignore their obligations.

However, there are serious and perhaps unintended consequences to requiring someone to pay $35 as a condition of release from jail. Holding someone in jail for failure to pay $35 can cost thousands of dollars in incarceration fees for a lack of $35. This is clearly not in the best interest of the taxpayers of Baton Rouge.

In a report titled “In for a Penny” released in 2010, the ACLU noted that “courts may not impose a sentence requiring a defendant to choose between either paying a fine ‘forthwith’ or serving time in jail; there is no justification for imposing such a sentence, as both the state’s interest in collecting fines and in rehabilitating offenders and deterring future criminal activity may be satisfied instead by other methods of fine collection, such as an installment plan.” In New Orleans, where the Municipal Court routinely imposed fines as an alternative to incarceration, that practice was discontinued after litigation led to a settlement agreement.

While $35 may seem like a small amount, to some people it remains a burden that they are unable to afford. Incarcerating people simply for being too poor to pay for the cost of their arrest is unconscionable as well as against the law, and makes no financial sense. Certainly people should honor their obligations and appear in court when ordered, and it is reasonable to impose a penalty on those who don’t. Installment payments, community service as an alternative to a fine, or other methods can hold people accountable while protecting their rights.

The judicial system, as a separate branch of government, is entitled to adequate funding to support its operations. Locking people up because they can’t afford to fund the system won’t provide adequate resources — it will simply create a debtors prison. We can and must do better.

Marjorie Esman

executive director

ACLU of Louisiana

New Orleans