Fines and Fees: The New Debtors Prison

by Raheem Williams

Louisiana has long been ranked as one of the poorest states in the country. Unfortunately, there seem to be a litany of government practices that contribute to this ugly truth. To build a better future for our state, there’s a lot of work to be done to create a society that is fair and just. One of the largest areas in need of reform is our system of fines and fees that often trap poor Louisianans into perpetual poverty.

The heavy government-imposed fines and fees system actively steers countless Louisianans away from a life of prosperity. Fines and fees are minor issues to those that can easily pay them but quickly become substantial burdens for those who lack the ability to pay. Oftentimes, those that can’t afford the fines and fees risk being sent to jail, receiving more fines, and sometimes both jail time and more fines. 

Louisiana traffic and criminal courts rely heavily on fines and fees to fund operations. This is problematic because of the perverse incentives created, the system is forced to levy burdensome fines to fund itself. Some laws mandate fines and fees, locking officers of the court into administering harsh fees in an unrealistic one-size-fits-all approach. This practice limits the ability of the court to utilize best judgement for the case at hand. Courts should be free to negotiate non-financial punishments for those who will likely face financial hardships from burdensome fines and fees. Louisiana courts should not be a pay-to-play justice system that exploits the least advantaged by limiting their opportunities to work and provide for their families.

Similarly, many of these fines and fees, such as cash bonds, are levied before any adjudication of guilt or innocence, meaning the system can and does bury the innocent and wrongly accused in state imposed financial debt.

The fines and fees funding system also creates unequal funding. Smaller parishes and municipalities that don’t have the case volume of Louisiana’s larger cities, collect less revenue. This funding dynamic creates poor and rich courts which erode at the goal of providing equality under the law. 

Fines and fees are government induced roadblocks to prosperity. They trap countless Louisianans in government debt that continues to build up and leaves people with no chance to work and build a better life. We must reform this system to give the poorest citizens a chance to realize the American dream.