State Rep. Duplessis Introduces Debt Free Justice Legislation for Louisiana’s Juveniles

Photo Source: Louisiana House Member Page

State Representative Royce Duplessis was adamant on changing what he considered “bad policy” when he drafted HB 216, known in juvenile justice circles as the “Debt Free Justice” legislation. If passed, it would eliminate all administrative fees, costs and taxes levied on juvenile offenders statewide. The legislation does not do away with punitive fines or victim restitution assessed by the courts.

“Fees in the criminal justice system have been getting more light in the last few years. We have come to realize how much our system depends on fines and fees to operate. At the end of the day, it’s an unfair process,” said Duplessis.  He strongly believes assessing the very people who can least afford to pay is “ineffective and harmful”.   

With the exception of Orleans Parish, families of children who are convicted of crimes are assessed administrative surcharges that have nothing to do actual with criminal justice system expenses.  “The judges of Orleans Parish Juvenile Court recognized that this was a bad policy and voluntarily eliminated the collection of administrative fees in November, 2018. They didn’t have to be forced in to,” Duplessis continued.  Juvenile court officials did not respond to a request for comment prior to publication deadline.  

Duplessis noted that much of the money owed is never collected. “Our families are caught in an unending spiral. The current policy just increases recidivism.  It also causes inequity when one family can afford to pay and another cannot,” said Duplessis. Even if the parents have not paid an outstanding debt by the time of release, the child is allowed to go home. 

The Policy Advocacy Clinic at the University of California-Berkeley’s School of Law has been studying Louisiana’s juvenile incarceration practices. Researchers Cheyda Arhamsadr and Delaney Green, who recently lived in New Orleans’ Leonidas neighborhood for five years, found that Louisiana’s juvenile courts assess fees, costs and taxes which are harmful to youth and families and create an undue burden. 

“We should be redirecting children out of the juvenile justice system. Instead we are forcing families to make hard choices whether to pay the fees or buy groceries,” said Delaney. “In terms of the dollar amount, there are cases which the fees are $10, but for far more the fees amount to hundreds of dollars,” said Arhamsadr.   The average administrative fee is estimated to be $642. 

According to the findings of a 2020 report by the Louisiana Commission on Criminal Justice Funding, the courts are a “basic civic function” that should be funded primarily from general government revenue sources and that Louisiana’s court system is overly reliant on fines and user fees.  In addition, the report stated that the current system is an ineffective and unreliable source of funding, lacks accountability and transparency, harms vulnerable communities and jeopardizes public safety.  

Through multiple public records requests, the duo’s research showed that in 2018 less than 6% of every dollar owed to the Court was collected.  

Duplessis originally submitted the “Debt Free Justice” legislation last year but because of COVID-19, the bill did not proceed. He prepared it after being approached by a number of organizations that work with juveniles including Ubuntu Village NOLA, the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights and Stand for Children Louisiana. The Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition is also supporting the measure. 

Led by award-winning juvenile justice advocate Ernest Johnson, Ubuntu Village NOLA serves as the eyes and ears for youth and families who are involved in Orleans Parish’s juvenile court system. Just think of them as a Court Watch NOLA model that only serves juveniles.  

In addition to courtroom advocacy, the agency also provides mentoring and cultural programming at the Youth Study Center and the Bridge City Center for Youth as well as parent leadership classes and participatory action research.  “Black youth are over-represented at every stage of the juvenile justice system. Fees, costs and taxes have a disproportionate impact on Black youth and their families,” said Johnson. 

Hundreds of families are impacted by these fees annually. “Administrative fees harm children and families. They are a barrier to successful reentry and counterproductive to the interests of children, families and local jurisprudence,” Johnson continued.   

COVID-19 has changed the way Johnson and his staff have been able to work within the juvenile justice system but it hasn’t changed their commitment. Ubuntu has been hosting holiday meals for the children and their families. “Juveniles who make mistakes often have a hard time working through the system,” said Ubuntu board member Betty DiMarco.  “It’s powerful and painful at the same time to see the kids who have made a mistake – sometimes serious. Being able to share a holiday meal with parents, siblings and grandparents is very special for everyone. These families are there for their kids,” she said.   

Ubuntu has created a social media tool kit to help interested citizens join the campaign to pass HB 216.   

“We at Stand for Children Louisiana appreciate Rep. Duplessis for filing HB 216,” said Carrie Griffin Monica, Stand Louisiana’s Executive Director.  “We’re also excited to be working with partners to support this bill at the Capital. For too many kids continue to fall into the school to prison pipeline and the current law makes it impossible for them to ever escape once they fall in.”

Monica says that eliminating court fines and fees for juvenile offenders through HB 216 will address three important issues in juvenile justice: (1) those least able to pay are assessed the fines and fees, (2) it costs government more to attempt to collect these fines and fees that the amount that would be received if they were paid the actual fine or fee, and (3) it proves an opportunity for kids to get out of the school to prison pipelines.  

“This is an important bill that could help juveniles stay out of the criminal justice system and impact the school to prison pipeline that continues to make Louisiana one of the highest state for incarcerated citizens in the nation,” she said. 

“Fees are one of the many ways that the juvenile legal system burdens primarily low-income Black families,” said Rachel Gassert, Policy Director for Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights.  “No one should have to pay the State to cage their child, and they certainly shouldn’t have to choose between that and feeding the rest of their family,” she continued.  

HB 216 will be heard by the House Judiciary Committee, of which Duplessis is a member. Other Orleans Parish legislators who serve on that committee include State Rep Mandie Landry and State Rep. Jason Hughes. State Rep. Randall Gaines from La-Place chairs the committee.  

Duplessis believes the bill will gain bi-partisan support from across the state. “I definitely have the support of the Orleans Democratic caucus among others. I’m optimistic that the bill will pass, but not without pushback,” he explained.  The Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice, a cabinet-level state agency that provides youth corrections services, is expected to publicly support the bill.  

Duplessis says he has not yet seen the legislation’s fiscal note but believes the financial impact will be minimal. “Any costs should not come from the people who can’t afford it,” he continued.  A hearing date has not been set for HB 216.  

“This legislation is going to be successful because from every angle it makes sense as good public policy,” said Berkeley’s Delaney. “It will be a win-win for everyone,” Arhamsadr said.

Regarding other tax legislation being introduced this session, Duplessis said that some bills are good, some are bad and some are still being vetted. “The State of Louisiana needs to take a serious look at tax policy and make long-term structural tax reform.  All the tax legislation is interconnected. We need to look comprehensively because it all works together. Voters should expect to see major tax changes this session,” Duplessis concluded.            

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