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New State Law Seeks To Fix New Orleans Judges’ Conflict Of Interest On Court Fines, Fees And Bail

Michael Isaac Stein
The Lens
Orleans Parish Criminal District Court.

Until recently, when judges set bail amounts in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court, the amount they set was directly tied to the amount of money they could potentially collect to fund court operations — things like paying their staff, purchasing supplies and travel expenses. The same was true of fines and fees they imposed after a defendant was convicted. A portion of both commercial bond fees and conviction fees were deposited into a Judicial Expense Fund, which the judges controlled. That was all dictated by state law.

But last October, a federal appeals court upheld rulings in two class-action lawsuits that those arrangements were unconstitutional. They found that Criminal District Court judges — when levying conviction fines and fees — and Orleans Parish Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell — when setting cash bail — had conflicts of interest when determining if a defendant had the ability to pay those amounts.

A panel of judges on the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reiterated the district court’s ruling against Cantrell that his “institutional incentives create a substantial and unconstitutional conflict of interest when he determines [the class’] ability to pay bail and sets the amount of that bail.”

But the federal judges offered a potential solution: cut the tie between the bail, fines and fee amounts and the Judicial Expense Fund.

Read more from The Lens.

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