Criminal justice system should consider circumstance, in addition to culpability

Published 6:28 am Monday, July 4, 2016

Regardless of how the Southern Poverty Law Center’s lawsuit against City Judge Robert Black and the city court turns out, the conditions of our system of justice are always worth a closer look.

Louisiana is well known as the state with the highest incarceration in the United States, and we are far from the safest state or the state with the lowest rate of crime. Therefore, common sense should indicate that something in the system is broken or is not working. We owe it to our selves as a community and as a state to examine every step in the criminal justice process — from policing and crime prevention through our court system and eventually to our penal system. We owe it to ourselves, because if we hope to enjoy safe, prosperous communities than we need to make sure our criminal justice system is operating as best as it can to promote safe, prosperous communities.

To that end, we agree with our city prosecutor, David Merlin Duke, who rightly believes that there are people who are guilty people, but who do not deserve any criminal record and who do not deserve jail time. A system that treats all offenders the same regardless of circumstance cannot be fair or just, because circumstances do matter. More to the point, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that in Bogalusa, 36 percent of the population live below the poverty line. Therefore, stacking criminal fines and fees upon criminal fines and fees according to criminal guilt alone ignores the reality that over a third of people in Bogalusa may be unable to pay those fines and fees.

Duke points out, rightly, that one element that could contribute to criminal activity is a sense of hopelessness. Once again, we agree.

But then, is it not possible that a criminal justice system that fines impoverished citizens hundreds of dollars — or threatens them with jail time if they cannot pay — could contribute to that very hopelessness that leads to criminal activity? If this is true, then surely we owe it to ourselves to change that system to lessen the hopelessness so that we may live in a safer, more prosperous community