A class-action lawsuit filed Thursday against the criminal district court in New Orleans alleges that judges and court officials have been running an “illegal scheme” in which poor people are indefinitely jailed if they fall behind on payments of court fines, “user fees” and assessments, reports the New York Times. The suit describes how fees are imposed with no hearing about a person's ability to pay, and how nearly all components of the local criminal justice system — the judges, the prosecutors, the public defenders — benefit financially to some degree.
The suit was filed on behalf of six plaintiffs by Alec Karakatsanis, a founder of Equal Justice Under Law, who filed a similar lawsuit against Ferguson, Mo., in February and helped force changes to jailing policies in Montgomery, Ala., last year. The funding of criminal justice systems through the fining of poor defendants has drawn intense scrutiny across the country over the past year. Advocates say the practice has escalated recently as budgets have grown tighter and politicians have balked at tax increases to fund courts.