The Louisiana Legislative Auditor has hit a roadblock in its attempt to figure out how dependent the state’s justice system is on fines and fees.
The information needed to figure out how reducing fines and fees will affect courts, sheriff’s offices, clerks of court and nongovernmental organizations that use the money is incomplete or unavailable, the auditor’s office says.
“We’re really at a stopping point,” Bradley Cryer, the LLA’s director of local government audit services, said Thursday. “It’s very possible that every dollar is being accounted for through these different organizations, but because the information is not available in a usable form, we just can’t say that with a degree of certainty.”
Act 260, a state law passed as part of the 2017 criminal justice overhaul, was meant to ensure fines and fees do not become a barrier to successful re-entry into society. But enforcement has been pushed back amid concerns about the impact on court funding.
In August, the New Orleans-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that criminal court judges in Orleans Parish have a conflict of interest when deciding whether defendants are too poor to pay the fines and fees that help fund the court’s expenses. The decision, which could effectively become the law in Louisiana, makes the state’s effort to find a more sustainable way to fund its court system more urgent.
But while some of agencies that collect and disperse the money keep detailed records, others might only report fines and fees in a lump sum. The information is stored in various systems, some electronic, some manual.
“No one ever asked for the information,” Cryer said.
He said the legislature might consider passing a law next session to require the agencies to collect and report the information in a usable fashion.