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Court agrees to stop jailing poor over unpaid fines

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A final settlement has been reached in a federal lawsuit filed over a Louisiana city’s jailing of poor people who fail to pay fines.

The settlement requires the Bogalusa City Court and Judge Robert Black to determine whether a defendant’s failure to pay a penalty is intentional. It also says a defendant cannot be jailed for being unable to pay.

The 2016 lawsuit was officially dismissed Tuesday by a federal judge in New Orleans. The lawsuit said criminal defendants were routinely jailed when they were unable to pay fines for minor traffic or misdemeanor offenses.

Bogalusa is 75 miles north of New Orleans.

In June, the city court agreed to refund some fees paid by indigent defendants to avoid jail.

The lawsuit was filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“Under the settlement, the court retains the authority to impose appropriate sentences for criminal violations, including imposing immediate jail time at initial sentencing,” the SPLC said in a Wednesday news release. “The Bogalusa City Court, however, will make a finding on the record to establish whether an individual is indigent at sentencing, and will make an explicit finding that failing to pay was willful before imposing jail time.”

The lawsuit is one of several similar actions filed in multiple states against various courts accused of running what amount to debtors’ prisons. The complaints allege that low-income defendants are illegally jailed when they cannot pay monetary penalties.

In recent years, the SPLC has settled lawsuits in two Alabama cities, Montgomery and Alexander City. A settlement on similar issues was reached in July in Louisiana’s Bossier Parish. In New Orleans, a hearing is set for Oct. 11 on a “debtors prison” lawsuit.

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