Just two days after a Washington Post report showing that New Orleans’ Municipal Court has more than 56,000 outstanding warrants (equivalent to 1 in 7 New Orleans adults having a warrant out for their arrest), community organizers, Orleans Parish public defenders, and local elected officials are joining together to call for the dismissal of all warrants, fines, and fees.
According to a press release from the The New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, Stand with Dignity organizers and members will present a report to the New Orleans City Council Criminal Justice Committee showing that 44,373 people in New Orleans have 55,047 outstanding warrants for municipal and traffic offenses issued since 2000 on Wednesday. The report is titled NOLA Shakedown: How Criminalizing Fines & Fees Traps Poor & Working Class Black New Orleanians in Poverty, and shows that in addition to the steadily rising number of warrants issued each year, 69 percent of people with warrants are Black.
“We need to consider all the damage this has caused and the psychological trauma it continues to impose on the minds and hearts and confidences of 14 percent of our population,” City Council member Jason Williams told the Washington Post. “This is New Orleans working poor. This is the hospitality community, musicians. These are people who are some of the reasons why people come to New Orleans in the first place.”
On Wednesday, Williams is expected to introduce a resolution calling for the dismissal of all warrants and criminal charges associated with homelessness and crimes of poverty, such as trespassing and obstruction of a public passageway. In addition, Williams plans to call for clearing warrants issued post-conviction, which are issued when someone is unable to pay their fines or fees. He will also ask the city to forgive the debt associated with those fines and fees.
According to Williams, it costs around $2.7 million to staff a 40-person quad in the jail – the same number of people incarcerated daily for municipal warrants and misdemeanors.
If the resolution passes successfully, New Orleans will be at the forefront of this type of municipal reform. To date, only the state of New Jersey and the cities of Ferguson, Missouri and San Francisco, California have successfully attempted anything similar. According to a report in Forbes, nearly 600 towns across the U.S. get as much as 10 percent of their annual budget from court fines and fees, and of those, 80 of them rely on fines and fees for over half of their budget.
The impact of municipal warrants on public safety came under heavy scrutiny after the 2014 incident in which Michael Brown was shot to death by a police officer in Ferguson. During the Justice Department’s investigation of that incident, it was discovered that more than 16,000 of the city’s 21,000 residents had municipal warrants – affecting “almost exclusively” poor, Black communities, and were being used as a revenue tool for the city. Five months later, Ferguson Municipal Court Judge Donald McCullin recalled the nearly 10,000 warrants issued in the city before Dec. 31, 2014.
A report from researchers at Harvard University, University of Memphis, and New York University found that local police departments are increasingly being used to generate revenue by imposing and collecting fines and fees – to the detriment of solving other crimes. According to that report, “police departments that collect a greater share of their revenue from fees solve violent and property crimes at significantly lower rates.”
Following the City Council hearing, Stand with Dignity will hold a rally on the steps of City Hall at 1300 Perdido Street.