Louisiana officials trying to get a handle on how justice system handles fines and fees

By David Jacobs | The Center Square

Over the next year or so, Louisiana officials hope to figure out how much money in fines and fees is flowing through the state’s criminal justice system and how that money is being spent, a necessary step in deciding how to replace that funding stream.

“We need to be able to follow the money,” said Rep. Tanner Magee, the Houma Republican who chairs the Louisiana Commission on Justice System Funding.

Louisiana’s system, to an extent not seen in other states, relies on self-generated fines and fees to operate, which encourages local jurisdictions to focus on debt collection rather than helping victims and reducing recidivism, according to a commission report. The funding system is unfair to poor defendants, ripe for fraud because of the lack of transparency, and may be unconstitutional, critics say.

As part of the 2017 criminal justice overhaul, Louisiana lawmakers passed Act 260, which was meant to ensure fines and fees do not become a barrier to successful reentry into society. But enforcement has been pushed back amid concerns about the impact on court funding.

The commission says general government revenue primarily should fund the courts, not fines and fees. But lawmakers don’t know how much that would cost state government because the various local jurisdictions don’t all provide enough detail to show how much money they collect and how the money is disbursed. The inconsistent reporting also makes it impossible for state auditors to verify the money is spent as intended.

A new law Magee authored requires uniform reporting of all court costs, fines and fees. The Louisiana Legislative Auditor and the state Supreme Court have developed a uniform reporting template.

Bradley Cryer, who directs local government audit services for the Legislative Auditor, expects district attorneys and some courts and municipalities to submit reports in six months. Reports from sheriffs, public defenders, clerks of court and the rest of the courts and local governments are due in a year, he said.

Once the reports are available, the LLA will take a few months to compile the information. The timeline assumes no unforeseen delays caused by hurricanes or the pandemic, he notes.

“We’re looking at a little more than a year time frame before we have a complete picture of all the financial information from all these different agencies,” Cryer said.

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