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More than 44,000 people in New Orleans have warrants for traffic violations and what advocates call “crimes of poverty.” City leaders say the system needs to be overhauled.
One in seven adults in New Orleans have a warrant out for their arrest for a traffic or municipal violation. In many cases, the warrants are for unpaid traffic fines or minor offenses like public drunkenness or disturbing the peace.
Now, some city leaders are saying their system is counterproductive—and ripe for change.
The New Orleans City Council last month passed a resolution calling for the dismissal of over 55,000 outstanding municipal and traffic warrants, along with their associated fines and fees. The oldest are two decades old, and the total number accounts for more than 40% of all warrants in the city. If Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s office embraces the idea, more than 44,000 people would see relief.
Councilmember Jason Williams, who sponsored the resolution with the support of the nonprofit Stand With Dignity and the Orleans Public Defenders, said that the city’s court system, which is funded by fines and fees, places a disproportionate burden on poor residents. “New Orleans is not a large city, and we’re not a very affluent city,” he said. “If you visit traffic or municipal court on a given day, you’ll see folks from our poor communities. We’re basically extracting the little bit of wealth in those communities so that their residents can avoid jail.”
Researchers at the Vera Institute found that warrants in New Orleans often resulted because defendants were reluctant to show up for court hearings because they feared being jailed for not being able to pay, a concern that wasn’t necessarily warranted. Researchers found that judges didn’t lock people up when they explained in person that they couldn’t afford to immediately pay the fines levied against them. “But fear of being jailed on the spot … keeps many people who can’t pay away from court. And when people don’t show up to pay, judges typically issue warrants for failing to appear,” the report reads.
At New Orleans municipal court, the top five charges associated with warrants are nuisance crimes, or “crimes of poverty,” according to Orleans Public Defenders Chief of Trials Danny Engelberg. Citations for obstruction of a public place, disturbing the peace, public drunkenness, criminal trespassing, and simple possession of marijuana all led to a significant number of warrants when those with tickets couldn’t pay the fees, or didn’t show up in court.
“The criminal justice system shouldn’t be policing these crimes in the first place,” Engelberg said. “It’s distracting law enforcement from real issues.”
Cantrell’s administration—and specifically the city attorney’s office—holds the power to dismiss the warrants, but hasn’t said whether it will or not. The mayor’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Engelberg said that he’s optimistic the city attorney will embrace the resolution. “The judges have said they want to do it, so I’m confident there’s the momentum to take action,” he said. “The city has really spoken in unison to get rid of them.”
Engelberg said the public defender’s office already had been “chipping away” at the mountain of warrants by hosting warrant dismissal clinics. They brought judges to homeless shelters and other locations throughout the city, and most people who had their cases heard saw their warrants and fines erased. “We’d get hundreds of warrants vacated in a day, but we knew we could do this every day and not make a dent,” he said.
Though police in these cities weren’t actively looking for those with warrants, they’re often discovered during traffic stops or other encounters with law enforcement. Even if jail time would never have been suggested for the original crime, the inability to pay becomes a jailable offense, Williams explained. “We did away with debtors’ prisons in the 1830s in name only,” he said. “If you can’t find the money to pay your fine you can end up in jail.”
That’s why Williams also sponsored a related measure requiring judges to use ability to pay assessments before levying fines on city residents, which also passed the city council.
Ability to pay determinations are relatively simple, explained Lisa Foster, co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center. “The amount it takes to deter Bill Gates from running a stop sign is much more than it takes to deter a low-income person,” she said. “So you find what makes sense for each person.”
While many local jurisdictions have experimented with making these kind of evaluations a requirement for courts, state legislatures haven’t taken as much action on the issue. Joanna Weiss, the other co-director of the FFJC, said it makes sense for cities to act now instead of waiting on state lawmakers.
Two federal appellate court rulings that found the city’s court systems dependence on fines and fees to be unconstitutional forced the city to act on the new requirement, Williams said. “We had to change,” he said. “But it’s also morally and fiscally sound to evaluate how much is reasonable for each person.”
Researchers in some cases have found that imposing fees without an evaluation of a defendant’s ability to pay is counterproductive. “The practice leads to wasted resources, as efforts to secure payment from individuals who may be unemployed, homeless, or simply too poor to pay are often fruitless,” reads one report from Harvard Law School’s Criminal Justice Policy Program.
Williams said that the warrant dismissal and ability to pay determinations are just the beginning. He next wants to push to dismiss warrants at criminal court and focus on communicating to the public what the city is doing. “If you change a law and don’t make people aware of it, you haven’t changed how it affects people’s lives,” he said. “I think this is the most important work we’ve done as a city because of the impact it can have on everyday people.”
Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.