Difficulties in tracking how Louisiana’s criminal justice system collects and spends fines and fees create opportunities for theft, a state lawmaker said Thursday.
“That system is ripe for someone defrauding it and taking money out of it in an inappropriate way,” said Rep. Tanner Magee, the Republican chairman of the Louisiana Commission on Justice System Funding.
Magee added that he wasn’t accusing anyone of theft. But if it’s hard to know how much money should be in a particular fund, he reasoned, it’s hard to know if some of it is missing.
“That is a fair statement,” Assistant Legislative Auditor Bradley Cryer said. “That’s a risk not just with courts or sheriffs, that’s any governmental organization. If you can’t verify the completeness of your information, then you don’t know that you’ve collected everything.”
The commission is tasked with helping the state move away from a justice system funded in large part by fines and fees to a more sustainable funding plan. According to a presentation the commission heard Thursday, states funding most or all of their courts’ functions is considered the best practice because state funding tends to be more stable, equitable and adequate than a hodgepodge of local funding sources.
But in Louisiana, officials don’t know how much that shift would cost the state and what the impact would be on local stakeholders because courts, sheriffs and clerks of court don’t always keep detailed records of the money they collect and spend, and the information isn’t always available in a usable format. Cryer urged lawmakers to consider legislation requiring every entity that collects, distributes and receives the money to use a uniform reporting system.
“It’s no one’s fault,” Cryer said. “This is an issue that no one has looked at, at this level, before.”
The Louisiana Supreme Court has been working on a reporting template that could be used system-wide. Julia Spear, the court’s deputy judicial administrator, said the template is nearly ready.
As part of the 2017 criminal justice overhaul, Louisiana lawmakers passed Act 260, which was meant to ensure fines and fees do not become a barrier to successful reentry into society. But enforcement has been pushed back amid concerns about the impact on court funding.
Lawmakers established the commission to look for ways to pay for the court system while allowing Act 260 to be implemented. Recent federal court decisions questioning the impact of fines and fees on poor defendants have made their work more urgent.
Jan Rodrigue with the state corrections department assured the commission that no one’s probation or parole is revoked solely because they didn’t pay a fine or fee. But Magee pointed out that not everyone knows that, and some people may skip a court date, creating a new violation, because they can’t pay a fine and are afraid of going back to jail.