Poverty is not a crime. Yet courts across the country are operating modern-day debtors’ prisons, arresting and jailing poor people for failing to pay unaffordable legal debts.
Gretna, Louisiana's "Mayor's Court"
The City of Gretna, Louisiana has no separate judicial branch. Instead, violations of the Gretna Municipal Code come before the Mayor’s Court, which is completely under the control of Gretna’s Mayor, Belinda C. Constant.
The Gretna Police Department maintains a quota of arrests and citations, with the express purpose of generating revenue. Individuals come before the court only with petty citations, imposed for their fee-generating potential. These individuals are then prosecuted by an employee of the Mayor in a court overseen by an employee of the Mayor and then made to pay a fee, collected by the Police Department at the direction of the Mayor, in order help fund the same system and its actors. The only diversion program is under the sole discretion of the Mayor-appointed Prosecutor.
While Gretna’s residents are being saddled with criminal charges and mounting debt, the Mayor’s Court budget has tripled.
We are pursuing a federal class action contending that the City of Gretna over-enforces traffic regulations and excessively charges nonviolent misdemeanor offenses to fund the Court and City’s budget and that the Mayor’s Court is fundamentally tainted by conflict of interest.
Nelson v. Constant
Unlawful Fees and Fines
The MacArthur Justice Center has filed a federal class action contending that the City of Gretna over-enforces traffic regulations and excessively charges nonviolent misdemeanor offenses to fund the Court and City’s budget and that the Mayor’s Court is fundamentally tainted by conflict of interest.
Judicial Kidnapping in Mississippi
In August 2016, an young African-American woman was traveling through the City of Pearl while looking for employment. She was a passenger in a friend’s car, and her baby rode with them in a car seat. When the car was stopped for a minor traffic violation, it was discovered that both adults had outstanding warrants for routine misdemeanor offenses. The officer arrested both women and, despite the baby’s grandmother arriving within minutes, insisted the child before Judge Shirley at the Pearl Youth Court. Less than 30 minutes later, Judge Shirley awarded custody to the baby’s grandmother and issued an order was prohibiting the woman from having any contact with her baby until court fees were paid in full.
Judge Shirley’s “no contact” order was in place for 14 months – until the baby was 18 months old.
Upon learning of this cruel miscarriage of justice, the Mississippi office contacted Pearl officials with clear demands: Judge Shirley be fired and the Youth Court closed. An emergency meeting of the Pearl Board of Aldermen was held, Judge Shirley resigned, and the Youth Court was closed. Mother and baby were reunited.
City of Pearl Youth Court
Unlawful Fees and Fines
After contacting the MacArthur Justice Center, Mississippi Director Cliff Johnson conducted an investigation. We learned that Judge Shirley had imposed countless similar orders, cruelly conditioning custody or visitation rights on monetary payments that parents sometimes were unable to make. On October 26, 2017, the Pearl Board of Alderman accepted MacArthur’s demands that the Pearl Youth...
In the news
MacArthur Justice Center Files Class Action Lawsuit Against Gretna, Louisiana for Using “Mayor’s Court” as Modern Day Debtor’s Prison to Balance BooksPress Release
‘Mayor’s Court’ Taken to Federal Court in LouisianaAssociated Press December 6, 2017
Federal class action lawsuit alleges Gretna Mayor’s Court actually ‘debtor’s prison’WGNO ABC December 5, 2017
Gretna uses the poor to balance budget, treats court system like cash register, lawsuit saysThe News Orleans Advocate December 5, 2017