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Lawsuit: Pretrial defendants in Louisiana victimized by racketeering scheme

When Henry Ayo was arrested for allegedly trying to steal an air conditionerand jailed in the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison last August, he was financially dependent on his wife and unable to make bail. Paying thousands of dollars to secure his pretrial release from the jail was impossible at the time, yet the judge presiding […]

When Henry Ayo was arrested for allegedly trying to steal an air conditionerand jailed in the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison last August, he was financially dependent on his wife and unable to make bail. Paying thousands of dollars to secure his pretrial release from the jail was impossible at the time, yet the judge presiding over his case, Trudy White, showed no interest in his financial woes. Without thoroughly questioning Ayo to gauge his ability to pay and assess the potential safety risks associated with his release, the judge set a high bond of $8,000. She also informed Ayo that, upon his release, he would be under the supervision of Rehabilitation Home Incarceration (RHI), although she didn’t specify what supervision would entail.

Days later, an RHI representative clarified what the terms of the defendant’s supervision would be if he made bail. Ayo would remain on house arrest, but was allowed to go to work. He’d have to pay a $225 monthly supervision fee. He’d be required to pay for and wear an ankle monitor. He’d need to make daily phone calls to his monitor. If he violated any of the terms, Ayo could be arrested and jailed again.

Ayo’s wife spent the next two months saving up enough money for a bondsperson to get him out of jail. When the sum was finally paid, however, she was informed that Ayo wouldn’t be released until an additional $500 was paid to RHI — a cost that White hadn’t mentioned. A company representative allowed her to pay $225 instead, after which RHI instructed the jail to let Ayo go. But after his release, Ayo and his wife were still unable to pay the monthly supervision fee imposed by the company and had to forgo paying for electricity and water in order to send RHI $50 and $100 when they could scrape together the money. Additional late fees were imposed, even though Ayo and his wife clearly didn’t have a way to pay them. Meanwhile, Ayo never received the ankle monitor, which was supposedly paid for with some of funds given to RHI. By the time Ayo was convicted six months later, the couple had shelled out roughly $1,000 — and yet the company demanded another $200.

The details of Ayo’s case are outlined in a new class action lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on Monday night. The organizations argue that RHI is involved in a racketeering and extortion scheme with the local Sheriff Sid J. Gautreax III, as well as Warden Dennis Grimes, the man who holds defendants in jail until RHI gives the green light to let them go. According to the lawsuit, which seeks monetary relief for the plaintiffs, Judge White knows of the arrangement and “indiscriminately orders [arrestees] to undergo supervision by RHI.” She’s allegedly been doing this ever since her 2014 re-election campaign, during which RHI Executive Director Cleve Dunn Sr. was hired for campaign marketing and his son, Cleve Dunn Jr., chaired the judge’s Campaign Committee. Once White orders defendants to undergo supervision with unspecified terms, Dunn Sr. ensures they won’t be released from jail until an initial $525 is paid to RHI — even after bail has been paid. Defendants, like Ayo, then have to pay steep fees imposed on them by the company.

“RHI Monitors and Dunn himself threaten supervisees with re-arrest if they fail to make financial payments or comply with RHI’s costly supervision conditions — without affirmatively inquiring into their ability to pay,” the lawsuit states. “Accordingly, supervisees pay (or attempt to pay) the fee out of fear of re-arrest and bond revocation by scraping together money from friends or family.”

The lawsuit says upwards of 300 defendants were allegedly roped into this scheme in 2015 and 2016.

“This is predatory and illegal. Rehabilitation Home Incarceration puts its own price on people’s liberty and forces them to pay up, over and over again,” Brandon Buskey, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project, said in a press statement. “Worse, this could not happen without the court and the jail enabling this scam, and ignoring the rights of those charged and presumed innocent.”

While the suit itself is new, East Baton Rouge residents have decried the trend for over a year. WAFB 9, a local CBS affiliate, began investigating White’s ties to RHI as early as 2015.

Dunn is far from the only person to see dollar signs when he looks at criminal defendants in Louisiana. East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore, III, has openly encouraged public defenders to increase their budgets by collecting application fees from indigent defendants in his parish and elsewhere. The state’s criminal justice system is funded by the collection of fines and fees from defendants — creating perverse incentives to arrest and prosecute as many people as possible.

These monetary incentives to lock people up exist outside of Louisiana as well. In addition to posting bail to be released from jail pretrial, it is common for defendants nationwide to pay various fees for their involvement in the criminal justice system once they’ve been convicted. They can be required to pay for their incarceration, court-ordered treatment, court-appointed counsel, victim restitution, and probation costs — money that is funneled into the pockets of police, prosecutors, courts, and other agencies that work alongside law enforcement (including private companies).

In the past few years, criminal justice advocates have argued that the collection of court fees traps people in legal debt and violates the Constitution. Amicus briefs pushing back against this practice have been filed in various courts across the country, arguing that poor people should not be penalized for being poor. In 2012, the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice and ACLU filed a brief that criticized the way Michigan enforces a “pay or stay” system by jailing people who can’t afford court costs. It also called on courts to give poor defendants alternative ways of paying back the state, such as requiring them to complete community service. This past March, the East Bay Community Law Center and more than 20 other community and legal organizations in California submitted a brief asking a state appellate court to encourage the dismissal of lower courts’ fines and fees when indigent defendants cannot pay. The brief was filed in support of a homeless and disabled mother who was caught driving on a suspended license and jailed for her inability to pay $220 in court costs.

The ACLU and SPLC’s lawsuit is just the latest legal battle in an ongoing war to end the two-tiered system of justice that criminalizes poverty in Louisiana, the so-called “Incarceration Capital of the World.”

But what makes East Baton Rouge defendants different from other poor people trapped in legal debt is that they have not yet been found guilty of anything. They are being forced by a private company to pay these fees — as opposed to following court-orders to do so post-conviction. Judge White is allowing RHI to rewrite the rules.