Louisiana News

Justice system funding report offers no specifics for Louisiana reform

(The Center Square) – A report from the Louisiana Commission on Justice System Funding reiterated its mission to shift funding from defendants to taxpayers, though the panel made no specific proposals to make it happen.

The report outlined the 25-member commission’s actions over the past year in studying how the state’s various courts fund operations, from the financial obligations of defendants to criminal fines, fees and court costs, and how all levels of the state justice system can reduce reliance on self-generated revenue.

“Commission members heard testimony, examined documents, and received reports from commission work groups, the Legislative Auditor, the National Center for State Courts, and the public,” according to the report which was presented to lawmakers Monday. “The commission took a multi-tiered approach to carrying out the commission’s charges, including individual work group tasks, combined work group responsibilities, and matters handled by the full commission.”

The commission partnered with the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) for technical assistance in examining how states including Alabama, Florida, Minnesota and New Hampshire have reengineered their judicial systems, and planned to use NCSC reports to craft future recommendations.

The commission also worked with the Louisiana Legislative Auditor (LLA) on uniform reporting of pre- and post-adjudication fines, fees and costs for state and local courts. A preliminary report presented to the commission by the LLA in November included only 4.9% of reporting entities because “reports for large collecting entities (sheriffs, clerks of court, and state agencies) were not due until Dec. 31, entities had emergency extensions do (sic) to the hurricanes, and LLA will have to manually input the data for some entities,” according to the report.

“More information will be needed to get an accurate understanding of how much money from court costs, fines, and fees is sued to support justice system agencies,” the report reads, adding that efforts to collect the information are ongoing. “The already herculean task has been made more difficult by the lack of standard naming conventions for agencies, the use of a form that cannot be uploaded if modified in certain ways, and a lack of knowledge about the distinction between court costs, fines, and fees or the purpose of reporting these to the legislative auditor.”

Commissioners reviewed House Bill 403 last year to require low level courts to create comprehensive budgets every year and offered amendments, though the legislation did not pass the Legislature.

The commission ultimately proposed a series of definitions for various types of legal financial obligations, the court system and core or essential court functions. The commission suggested specific definitions for fines, restitution, court costs, fees, asset forfeiture/sale, and “scope of the court system” that do not currently align in different jurisdictions.

The only other recommendation was for the commission to continue its work.

“There were no proposals adopted by the full commission,” according to the report.

Several folks who spoke at the commission meeting Monday discussed the benefits and drawbacks of eliminating certain costs or fees, with law enforcement officials questioning how the funding would be replaced.

“We are all for what you all are trying to do, but … the elephant in the room is if you take money away, where is it coming from to take care of it?” asked Carl Richard, with the Shreveport City Marshall’s Office.

Others pointed to previous suggestions to use new revenues from legalizing recreational marijuana to lessen the reliance on fees, fines and court costs in the justice system.

“Our projections show we could be bringing in at least $100 million a year if we did legalize, regulate and tax marijuana,” said Peter Brown, with Louisiana Progress, “and I think using that … money to fill this funding hole would be one novel and creative way of finding that money.”

Daniel Erspamer, spokesperson for Smart on Crime, a conservative criminal justice reform advocacy group, issued a statement about the state’s current system and needed changes after the commission reported its findings Monday.

“Louisiana’s court systems should not be reliant on fines and fees as their primary funding source,” Erspamer said. “Too often, courts are stuck in a tough position of having to rely on fines and fees in order to fund their operations while the most vulnerable Louisianans are left buried in financial obligations and run the risk of further incarceration. The state should be helping people escape poverty, not trapping them in it.

“It’s clear that we must urgently look for ways to fund our court systems through state or local appropriations so that justice can be served fairly and effectively. We look forward to the continued work of the commission to spur much-needed, common-sense reforms to adequately support our complex justice system while allowing Louisianans to get back on a pathway to opportunity.”

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