Financial Conflicts of Interest and the Funding of New Orleans’s Criminal Courts
Using New Orleans as a case example, this Comment describes the dozens of fines, fees, and costs that may be imposed on criminal defendants. As the amount of criminal justice debt grows so too does the likelihood of incarceration for those unable to pay their financial obligations.
After describing these barriers, the Comment focuses on the constitutional and political concerns raised by fines, fees, and costs in New Orleans’s criminal courts. Each criminal court in New Orleans is significantly funded by fees and costs, which raise millions of dollars for the Municipal, Criminal District, and Traffic Courts each year. The money, which is deposited into the courts’ own bank accounts, helps pay for, among other costs, each court’s operating expenses and non-judicial salaries. Because each court can only generate income from fees and costs if a criminal defendant is detained or convicted of a crime, the funding structure creates a financial incentive for judges to detain and convict criminal defendants. The Comment argues that the courts’ funding structures violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees a right to a trial before an impartial judicial officer. Elaborating on this guarantee, Tumey v. Ohio, 273 U.S. 510 (1927) and Ward v. Monroeville, 409 U.S. 57 (1972) found that the Due Process Clause is violated where, as in New Orleans, a judge has a personal or institutional financial stake in the outcome of a case. The Comment ends with several recommendations to reform the courts’ funding structures to encourage a more just and fair criminal justice system in New Orleans.