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When their sentence is up, ex-offenders stay in a prison of debt

The funding of Orleans Parish Prison has become a hotly debated political issue in New Orleans, largely over who is responsible for paying for the jail.
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

The funding of Orleans Parish Prison has become a hotly debated political issue in New Orleans, largely over who is responsible for paying for the jail. Amidst these discussions, there is a group of individuals who routinely pay into the criminal justice system: prisoners. Dispersed throughout the criminal justice process are fees and fines that are frequently used to help fund court or prison operations.

On Sunday's special episode of Melissa Harris-Perry dedicated to finding solutions to poverty, the host and her panel examined how debt incurred by prisoners can create a staggering barrier to establishing financial security after being released—and in many cases, can force individuals back into prison for failure to pay.

Ex-offenders face a host of economic barriers after leaving prison, including being banned from public assistance programs like housing aid, SNAP benefits, and TANF, more commonly referred to as welfare, benefits. They are also targets of employment discrimination in the 41 states that do not have legislation banning employers from asking job applicants about their criminal record before having a chance to review their resume and hold an interview. Ex-offenders often confront these difficulties to getting on their feet and earning a paycheck at the same time that they face criminal debt regularly in the hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of dollars.

"We’re putting this squarely on the backs of people at the precise moment when we’re telling them they need to rebuild their lives and get their acts together," said guest Rebecca Vallas, a staff attorney at Community Legal Services in Philadelphia.

In Louisiana, dozens of such charges are dispersed throughout state statutory code, and often target those least able to pay them. Even defendants who are never convicted of a crime can walk away from court with debt to pay for the proceedings. For example, individuals in Louisiana are charged a nonrefundable application fee of $40 for representation by indigent defense. In Orleans Parish, defendants are charged $100 to enter into a payment plan for their fines. Ex-offenders can have their probation extended for missing payments, as well as their driver’s license suspended.

The repercussions of imposing these fines, and using them to finance court operations, extend beyond individuals. When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, the indigent defense program in New Orleans was financed primarily through traffic citations. When traffic court was closed in the aftermath of the storm, Orleans Parish was forced to lay off 25 public defenders, more than two-thirds of the office’s staff, leaving only 12 people available to provide public defense services for the city.

Despite the negative impact these policies have, Vallas describes this as a "nationwide trend…shifting the onus of revenue generation for their courts and criminal justice system onto the backs of people who interact with the criminal justice."

A new report from the Brennan Center for Justice, “The Hidden Costs of Criminal Justice Debt,” investigates these practices and provides best practice models and proposed recommendations to improve the system of criminal debt. Those recommendations include exempting indigent defendants from fees and debt collection efforts, ceasing to incarcerate individuals for failing to pay criminal debt, and eliminating "poverty penalties" that tack on additional fees to individuals unable to pay off criminal debt in one fell swoop.

As the cost of the criminal justice system in New Orleans is evaluated, the debt incurred by those who come in contact with courts and prisons needs to be considered.

Sara Kugler is the program coordinator at the Anna Julia Cooper Project on Gender, Race, and Politics in the South at Tulane University in New Orleans--headed by our host, Melissa Harris-Perry. Find them on Facebook, and on follow them on Twitter at @AJCProject.

Both segments of Sunday's discussion can be found below.