On Thursday, the New Orleans City Council passed a resolution urging the dismissal of more than 55,000 outstanding municipal and traffic warrants, fees, and fines. This resolution makes New Orleans a leader among U.S. cities in fine and fee reform.
According to Councilmember-At-Large Jason Williams, this resolution addresses the “debtor’s prisons” and the cycle of poverty created when fines and fees are assessed without consideration to a defendant’s ability to pay, and the criminalization that occurs when warrants are issued for those who cannot pay.
“We cannot sit idly by and quietly tacitly endorse debtor’s prisons in the city of New Orleans,” Williams said. “For too long, court fees and bail have been talked about as mechanisms to make the public safer. We all know this is not to be accurate. Access to capital – or rather simply put, money – has been the determining factor about who sits in jail and who doesn’t. This legislation is not only morally sound but also fiscally and operationally sound. Thank you Stand With Dignity for your leadership.”
Williams introduced the resolution to the council with the support of Stand With Dignity, an organization of Black workers and families. Orleans Public Defenders also supported the measure. This resolution urges judges in the traffic and municipal court systems to forgive criminal justice debt that has been assessed without an ability to pay determination, and advocates for the recall of outstanding associated warrants.
Along with the resolution, the City Council also passed a new city ordinance that invalidates a portion of the New Orleans municipal code authorizing “stay or pay” – or jailing of defendants until they can pay their fines or fees. According to the new ordinance, judges must conduct an assessment of a defendant’s ability to pay before they can impose any financial penalty for municipal or traffic violations.
In September, the Washington Post reported that one in seven adults in New Orleans has a warrant out for their arrest. Sixty-nine percent of those affected are Black. In most cases, the warrants were issued for failing to appear for a court date for a minor, nonviolent offense that normally wouldn’t carry a jail sentence. In a city largely driven by the service industry, many hourly workers cannot afford to take time off in order to appear for court.
The ordinance is in line with a new report from the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice (NOWCRJ) and Stand With Dignity titled NOLA Shakedown: How Criminalizing Fines & Fees Traps Poor & Working Class Black New Orleanians in Poverty that called for four recommendations:
- Making all municipal fines based on a defendant’s ability to pay
- Cease funding the court system with fees from poor communities
- Abolishment of fees and court costs added to underlying fees
- Prohibiting the jailing of people for poverty offenses, which harms communities more than the offense itself.
“I just wanted to thank you all,” said Stand With Dignity member Williana Washington-Tadlock. “This is going to change a lot of people’s lives.”