Jeff Sadow: In Louisiana, a justice system that punishes the poor

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Louisiana can do better than letting the poor rot in jails, their misfortune exploited by questionable judicial

Louisiana can do better than letting the poor rot in jails, their misfortune exploited by questionable judicial decisions and profiteering bail bondsmen and their defenses impaired by prosecutors looking to boost receipts.

Across the state during the past few months, a series of news reports and lawsuits have exposed in too many parts of Louisiana a justice system failing to protect the rights of the indigent accused. Both bail bonding practices and defense funding mechanisms have come under fire.

In Bossier and Webster parishes, many poor accused of petty crimes languish in jail for weeks, unable to post outsized bonds. Others remain behind bars just because they can’t pay the $40 application fee for public defense, which authorities legally can but don’t reduce or waive. In Lafayette, Vermilion and Acadia parishes, automatic bail setting without judicial vetting for ability to pay also keeps alleged misdemeanor criminals locked up for extended periods.

But the problem goes beyond the courthouse and jails. In New Orleans, Blair’s Bail Bonds faces a lawsuit over extortion and kidnapping to extract bond revenues well beyond legal charges. In Baton Rouge, Rehabilitation Home Incarceration, owned by Cleve Dunn Sr., faces accusations of doing something similar.

That suit alleges District Judge Trudy White collaborated with Dunn, who had backed her election, by ordering arrestees to contract with RHI’s monitoring services to secure their release — even before an appearance before her — regardless of their financial means. It further claims that the parish cooperated by keeping those under her order imprisoned until they paid up.

However, even if not dealing with unreasonable bail requirements, the indigent accused can find themselves struggling to obtain adequate legal counsel due to fiscal constraints. Despite a 2011 fee increase levied on any person convicted after a trial, pleading guilty or no contest, or after forfeiting bond, revenues from this source have declined. The majority of public defender office revenue comes from traffic tickets and typically comprises from half to three-quarters of all local monies raised.

The decrease has occurred, according to The Lens website, because of traffic infraction diversion programs, where those ticketed admit guilt but avoid court. The number of prosecuted traffic infractions has fallen statewide — in some cases, dramatically. Districts thereby deprive public defenders as they set their own policies and fees for these programs and don’t charge the $45 court fee from pleas or forfeitures.

Besides its questionable constitutionality, excessive bail policy costs taxpayers by having to house needlessly longer those charged with crimes, compounded by lack of public defender resources that cause trial delays or inability to release prisoners who don’t threaten the community and who present no flight risk. Moreover, such practices only encourage misbehavior from bail bond firms eager to tap into that enlarged revenue source.

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For whatever reason, some state judicial districts and local courts need state guidance on this matter. Legislation should require signature bonding at a relatively low fee for petty crimes where to impose bail a prosecutor must prove the defendant a threat to offend or flee. New laws should also prevent abusive practices by unscrupulous judges and bondsmen.

As for indigent defense funding, the statute should change to increase the amount of criminal bond fees and premiums charged to bond companies that go to public defenders. It also should have diversion programs incur the $45 charge per enrollee dedicated to indigent defense.

The current system, which acts to maximize revenues for local governments and the bail bond industry yet starves public defense, needs rebalancing. Clearly, despite the criminal justice reforms they approved during the last regular session, the governor and lawmakers still have work to do.

Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University-Shreveport, where he teaches Louisiana government. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics, www.between-lines.com, where links to information in this column may be found. When the Louisiana Legislature is in session, he writes about legislation in it at www.laleglog.com. Follow him on Twitter, @jsadowadvocate or email jeffsadowtheadvocate@yahoo.com. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.

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