Debtors’ Prison Scheme Violates Core Constitutional Rights of New Orleans’ Poorest

by December 18, 2017

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A federal district judge on Wednesday ruled that a debtors’ prison scheme run by the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court (OPCDC) that fails to consider an indigent individual’s ability to pay court debts before jailing them violates core constitutional rights. Moreover, the court’s dependence on those court debts from fines and fees creates an unconstitutional conflict of interest.

The ruling by Judge Sarah S. Vance of the Eastern District of Louisiana in the class action lawsuit, Cain v. City of New Orleans, calls into question the constitutionality of Louisiana’s practice of funding its courts off the backs of the poor.  The ruling explicitly connects the OPCDC debtors’ prison scheme with its own pressing need to generate money.  It also clearly holds that any jailing of poor individuals without prior notice and an opportunity to be heard on their ability to pay violates the Fourteenth Amendment.

“The Orleans Parish Criminal District Court epitomizes the criminalization of poverty and the corrupting effect of financial incentives on our local courts,” said Kristen Clarke, President and Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee.  “The resurgence of debtors’ prisons across our country entraps poor people, too many of whom are African American or minority, in a cycle of escalating debt and unnecessary incarceration.  This cycle undermines public trust and confidence in our justice system.”

In June, Civil Rights Corps, Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe, LLP, attorneys from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers’ Committee), along with Louisiana attorneys Bill Quigley and Anna Lellelid, filed a Motion for Partial Summary Judgment highlighting the systemic problems that punish the poor and perpetuate imbalance in the criminal legal system.  This injustice also disproportionately affects racial minorities.

OPCDC judges acknowledge that 95 percent of arrestees before them cannot afford a lawyer.  Yet OPCDC judges routinely impose court fines, fees and costs without taking into account individuals’ ability to pay, in violation of a longstanding law forbidding the incarceration of people because they are poor.  This creates a vicious cycle in which indigent defendants are further punished for their inability to pay court-ordered debts.

“No human being should be put in a cage because she cannot make a monetary payment, and no local legal system should depend on convicting people and extorting money from them just to make enough money to keep the courts open,” said Alec Karakatsanis, Founder and Executive Director of Civil Rights Corps.

“Forcing courts to fund themselves by assessing and collecting fees on largely indigent defendants, as Louisiana does, forecloses impartial justice and delegitimizes the ‘justice’ system. It can ruin lives. This ruling is a good first step toward restoring due process in Orleans’ criminal court and a sends a message of much-needed change in courts across the country,” said Mateya Kelley, an attorney with the Lawyers’ Committee’s Criminal Justice Project, who presented arguments on the motion.

To read Judge Vance’s opinion, click here.

To read the legal brief in support of the Motion filed in June, click here.  To read the Statement of Facts, click here.

About the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law:

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, was formed in 1963 at the request of President John F. Kennedy to involve the private bar in providing legal services to address racial discrimination. Now in its 54th year, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is continuing its quest “Move America Toward Justice.” The principal mission of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is to secure, through the rule of law, equal justice for all, particularly in the areas of criminal justice, fair housing and community development, economic justice, educational opportunities, and voting rights.

About Civil Rights Corps

Civil Rights Corps, a non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C., engages in systemic, innovative civil rights litigation aimed at challenging the inhumanity that has become normalized in the American criminal legal system.  To learn more about Civil Rights Corps, please visit  You can also follow us on Twitter: @CivRightsCorps.

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