There’s no “get out of jail free” card in Bogalusa, Louisiana. Just a “get-out-of-jail fee.” The city court doesn’t just charge you for breaking the law; it charges you with impossible debt, forcing you to pay with cash or with your freedom.
The city’s so-called “debtor’s prison” operation, known for jailing defendants charged with petty crimes after piling on usurious penalties, locked up Rozzie Scott in a financial trap after he was caught stealing $5 worth of pizza and ground beef from a local store to feed his family. Although he’s still paying down the legal debt his poverty earned him, last month he and other residents sued the court to challenge what civil-rights advocates call a predatory corruption of justice.
Bogalusa—a former KKK stronghold where a third of residents live in poverty—has been exploiting its most vulnerable residents through the legal system, according to the suit, filed with the support of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). The activists charge that Judge Robert Black has for years run an extortion racket from the bench, extracting fines and fees for nonviolent civil and petty offenses, like traffic violations, to finance his own courtroom.
Compared to other high-profile debtor’s-prison cases—like Ferguson, Missouri’s scandalous system of extracting legal penalties from impoverished defendants to finance city budgets—Bogalusa’s conflict of interest is even more acute, says SPLC Deputy Legal Director Sam Brooke, because guilt literally pays. Judge Black “is dependent on finding people guilty and assessing costs against them, just in order to have enough funding to keep the court operating. If the judge found everyone innocent, the court would’ve had to shut down because the court wouldn’t have had any operating budget.”
The perverse incentives driving the court’s decisions result in “a real two-tiered system of justice,” he says, “where the poor are really being punished disproportionately just because of their poverty.”