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Citizens in Louisiana couldn’t believe there was still a debtor’s prison in the U.S. They were abolished almost 200 years ago.

As the name implies, those without money who failed to pay their debts were sent to prison. This was, in effect, still happening in New Orleans where the court system funded itself through an unconstitutional “cycle of debt and threats.” A class-action lawsuit recently filed claims that the Orleans Parish criminal court system used illegal warrants to arrest the city’s poorest citizens in what amounts to a “modern debtors’ prison.”

Those arrested in some cases were not even asked if they could pay the high court costs and fees levied against them and were put in jail for days or weeks until they settled debts they were unable to afford.

The 42-page suit was filed on September 17th in federal court. It states that “[t]he environment of threats of jail and actual jailing creates a culture of fear among indigent people and their families, who borrow money at high interest rates, divert money from food for their children, and cash their family members’ disability checks in a desperate attempt to pay the Collections Department to avoid indefinite confinement.”

handcuffsThis is happening in other parts of the country as well. State and local courts charge fees to people convicted of crimes, which includes fees for public defenders, prosecutors, court administration, jail operation, and probation supervision. Some of these courts have used aggressive means to collect these unpaid fines and fees, such as ordering arrests and jailing those who fall behind on their payments without giving them a hearings to see if they can pay or offering other options like community service.

The case in Louisiana says that once locked in jail, “each person was told that they had no court date set and that they would not be released until they paid the entirety of their debts or posted a preset $20,000 secured money bond.”

The complaint goes on to claim that the staff in the court’s Collections Department “admitted under oath that they have been issuing arrest warrants for unpaid debts by signing themselves the signatures of judges without first presenting any information to the judge or even notifying the judge.”

Debtors’ prisons are unfair and illegal because they imprison individuals because they can’t afford to pay court-imposed fines or fees, which the class action members say violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of due process and equal protection under the law.