Lawsuit accuses Louisiana judge of running debtors’ prison

Lawsuit accuses Louisiana judge of running debtors’ prison

A lawsuit [complaint, PDF] is accusing a Louisiana judge of running a modern-day debtors’ prison. The lawsuit, filed Tuesday by the Southern Poverty Law Center [advocacy website], alleges that Judge Robert Black is sending poor defendants to jail when they cannot pay fines and charging them an “extension fee” to avoid jail time. The lawsuit contents that the judge routinely jails people who cannot pay fines for minor offenses without verifying why they cannot pay. One example [AP report] given is of a man who was fined $450 for stealing $5 worth of groceries and then jailed for four hours when he could not pay the fine or extension fee until a cousin paid the fee. Beyond just jailing the poor, the lawsuit contends that the extension fee created by Black to allow defendants to buy additional time in order to pay their fines is illegal and not authorized by state law. The lawsuit is seeking a declaration condemning Black and the Bogalusa City Court for their actions and an injunction against their practices.

The treatment of prisoners and prison reform [JURIST podcast] has been a matter of ongoing concern in the US. In March the Department of Justice urged state court systems to stop using procedural routines and hefty fines to profit off poor defendants. In February the Supreme Court of California ruled [JURIST report] that Governor Jerry Brown can put his plan to ease prison overcrowding on the ballot this November. In January the US Supreme Court ruled that a landmark decision banning mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles should apply retroactively [JURIST report]. In August the Department of Justice reached a settlement [JURIST report] with Los Angeles prisons on mentally ill inmate care. In May of last year Human Rights Watch released [JURIST report] a report stating that mentally disabled prisoners experience “unnecessary, excessive, and even malicious force” at the hands of prison staff across the US. A federal court in February 2015 approved [JURIST report] a settlement agreement between the Arizona Department of Corrections and the American Civil Liberties Union in a class action lawsuit over the health care system within Arizona prisons. Also last February rights group Equal Justice Under Law filed suit [JURIST report] against the cities of Ferguson and Jennings, Missouri, for their practice of jailing citizens who fail to pay debts owed to the city for minor offenses and traffic tickets.