A lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center alleges that Bogalusa, Louisiana, Judge Robert J. Black has been running an illegal debtors’ prison, sending poor defendants to jail when they are unable to pay their fines and charging an additional “extension fee” to avoid jail time. According to a report from Jurist, Judge Black regularly sends defendants who are unable to pay minor offense fines to jail, without any effort spent to determine why they are incapable of paying the fine. Debtors’ prisons have been outlawed in America at the federal level since 1833.
The lawsuit seeks an immediate injunction against Judge Black’s actions, and a condemnation of him and the Bogalusa City Court, as well as damages to be awarded to those who were forced to pay the “extension fee.”
“Plaintiffs bring these claims on behalf of themselves and all others similarly situated to seek a declaration that Defendants’ practices are unconstitutional, to seek an injunction to enjoin them from continuing these practices, and to seek damages to recover the illegal extension fee for those who paid it in the past year.”
The SPLC’s complaint also alleges that “the City Court is funded off the backs of the poor,” and that “it substantially relies on the court costs and fees it collects from criminal defendants,” citing that 15 percent of the court’s expenditures are paid through money gained from criminal defendants.
ABC News notes the case of Rozzie Scott, a man who stole $5 worth of ground beef and pizza to feed his family, who was ordered by Judge Black to pay a fine of $450, plus costs. SPLC spokesperson Cindy Kent told them that Scott, in a declaration to the SPLC, indicated that he is unemployed, job searching, and currently living in public housing with his grandmother. He struggles to pay the basic costs of living every month for himself and his family.
When Scott returned to the court and explained to Judge Black that he was unable to pay his fine due to his circumstances, Judge Black asked if he could pay the $50 extension fee, to buy him a few more weeks. When Scott said that he was unable to pay that, Judge Black jailed him until a cousin put up the $50.
Scott has still not found work and is set to appear again in Judge Black’s court on July 25 — and he’s afraid of what might happen.
“I am scared I will be arrested and thrown in jail because I cannot pay the fine plus costs and do not believe Judge Black will treat me fairly because he only seems interested in getting money for the City Court.”
The lawsuit argues that the extension fee is nothing more than extortion, an illegal method dreamed up by Judge Black to bolster the court’s funds, illegal under state law and lacking the necessary approval by the state’s Supreme Court.
In total, the SPLC, through their attorney Micah West, is representing four defendants, all poor, who are afraid of ending up at Judge Black’s mercy.
“Our clients are terrified that they’re going to go to jail.”
The core of the SPLC’s case is a requirement imposed by the U.S. Supreme Court in the early 1980s that a judge must ask why a defendant is unable to pay a fine. Most courts also typically offer alternatives if a defendant is unable to pay a fine for financial reasons, such as community service, a lesser fine, or the establishment of a payment schedule.
The lawsuit also alleges that Judge Black is unreasonably biased toward issuing fines, due to the sheer amount of the City Court’s operating cost they pay.
“It’s creating an incentive to jail people, or it’s undermining their right to appear before a judge who isn’t concerned about how much money he needs to take in to fund himself.”
Judge Black declined to comment, saying that he wanted time to study the SPLC’s accusations. “It’s all brand-new news to me,” he said.
[Photo by Jorg Hackemann/Shutterstock]