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Louisiana justice commission looks to overhaul court costs next legislative session

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By William Patrick | The Center Square

(The Center Square) – Louisiana’s court system is facing a cost overhaul, with many fines, fees and charges potentially reduced or eliminated as early as next year.

The Louisiana Commission on Justice System Funding met at the state Capitol Monday to discuss the reforms, which chair Rep. Tanner Magee, R-Houma, said would culminate in a commission report no later than Feb. 1.

The report will serve as the basis for potential legislation in the 2022 regular legislative session, he said.

Monday’s meeting included updates from various working groups within the 30-member commission. The body was formed in 2019 to address the practice of using fines, fees and other costs to generate court revenues, as opposed to receiving general revenue funds for the state government.

“We know that the courts and public defenders shouldn’t be funded that way because of potential conflicts,” said Remy Starns, a representative of the Louisiana Public Defender Board and group-2 commission member.

An early draft report said the system of charges, payments and debt collections is “void of basic notions of transparency and ripe for potential fraud from bad actors.”

Magee acknowledged the Legislature does not have a clear understanding of the costs imposed by state and local courts.

“Really, we’ve been trying for years to get a system-wide cost break-out,” he said.

Vanessa Spinazola, executive director of the Justice and Accountability Center of Louisiana, presented a preliminary assessment for eliminating multiple categories of court costs, such as fees and surcharges attached to “ability to pay” policies.

“This is when someone is charged a fee, but when they can’t pay there are payment plans, surcharges and other additional costs … all based on the fact that you can’t pay the first fee,” she said.

Spinazola cited a 25% surcharge from the state Office of Debt Recovery as an example.

Reforming service fees and charges for routine court functions such as docketing and resetting cases also was discussed.

“These are things the court already does but is presented as a cost on someone who is being processed through the court system,” Spinazola said.

Creating a uniform system of charges is a commission priority, as court costs for identical items often vary based on location.

Magee directed members to review cost-related recommendations from the National Center for State Courts before the commission’s next meeting Nov. 1.

Magee added the Louisiana Legislative Auditor has been gathering financial information from local jurisdictions across the state, which will be used to develop final cost determinations and future funding proposals.

Magee said the process involved passing legislation so the Legislative Auditor could audit local court costs.

“We learned we didn’t have the ability to track fines and fees throughout the entire state,” Magee said.

Diane Allison, director of local government services at the Legislative Auditor’s office, said the deadline to submit court funding data is the end of December. A comprehensive financial report is expected to follow in early 2022.

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