Louisiana justice system funding overhaul continues; replacement funding remains elusive

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The Louisiana Commission on Justice Funding met at the state Capitol on Monday to continue a bipartisan effort aimed at overhauling how the state’s justice system is paid for.

Fines, fees, charges and other costs generate revenue for the system, but many reform advocates contend the funding mechanism creates perverse incentives and indebts those who can least afford it.

An early commission draft report questioned the efficacy, fairness and constitutionality of levying public debts against justice system participants while the payments are then used to fund the same institutions that issue them.

The 30-member commission was established in 2019 to develop recommendations for the Legislature. Commission chair Rep. Tanner Magee, R-Houma, said last month the body will produce a report no later than Feb. 1, or one month before the next legislative session.

Remy Starns, a member representing the Louisiana Public Defender Board, fingered the commission’s underlying problem minutes into Monday’s meeting: “Mr. chairman, I can tell you, we buried the lead. Identifying a stable funding option is the whole game here.”

Starns raised several potential ways to offset funding losses should the state depart from the existing fines-and-fees funding model, including raising property taxes, consolidating courts to reduce expenses and “disincentivizing” parish and local courts.

“The search continues …,” Starns said. “But again, I believe that’s the whole game.”

Vanessa Spinazola, a commission member and executive director of the Justice and Accountability Center of Louisiana, cited multiple fees that lawmakers could eliminate next year, such as “ability to pay” surcharges. If someone can’t pay a court cost, she said, a surcharge is added to the debt.

“It’s basically interest,” Spinazola added.

Other items slated for elimination were fees and charges tied to routine court activities that must be performed regardless, such as docketing cases and removing warrants. The concept of creating a uniform system of charges also was introduced, as opposed to the current practice of differing court costs across geographic locations.

Spinazola said she was working with the Pelican Institute, a New Orleans-based think tank, to develop a list of items that local courts charge that aren’t authorized by state law. The Pelican Institute also is researching whether unspent American Rescue Plan Act pandemic funds can be used to support the state justice system in place of fines and fees, she said.

Representatives from the Louisiana legislative auditor’s office updated the commission on attempts to gain financial clarity into the disparate system of court charges, payments and debt collections across hundreds of justice system entities.

All relevant entities have until the end of the year to supply the required fiscal information, but auditors said 77 entities already had complied.

While cautioning against drawing system-wide conclusions, they said $3.1 million, or 29% of all fees within the criminal justice side of the 77 entities, came from the single category of “contempt” of court charges.

Another $757,000 came from “service fee collections,” or charges applied to using credit cards when paying fines and fees, or charges associated with third-party debt collectors. A category labeled “other criminal fines” amounted to $7.8 million, the auditors said.

Two representatives from law enforcement crime labs urged the commission to exercise restraint with respect to justice system revenue cuts during a public comment period.

Joseph Jones, director of North Louisiana Criminalistics Laboratory, said 95% to 100% of the lab’s $5 million budget comes from court fees and fines, which are critical to conducting an estimated 14,000 law enforcement-related investigations at the lab this year.

Jones said the pay range for the lab’s 36 employees hovers around $40,000 a year, adding, “We have not been able to give our staff raises because of the climate being court costs are what finance us and court costs are down because of COVID.”

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