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Alana Cain at the Orleans Parish Criminal Court on Thursday. She spent a week behind bars for failure to pay court fees. Credit William Widmer for The New York Times

Alana Cain at the Orleans Parish Criminal Court on Thursday. She spent a week behind bars for failure to pay court fees. Credit William Widmer for The New York Times

NEW ORLEANS — Late at night, after the lawyers had gone home, Alana Cain washed the floors at a downtown firm. One morning, a ring disappeared; Ms. Cain, 26, was charged and eventually pleaded guilty. The judge ordered her to pay $1,800 in restitution. He also imposed roughly $950 on top of that in court fines and fees.

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Prisoners in a Louisiana jail

She paid in installments, coming to the collections office with $50 every two weeks for more than a year. Once, after too long a jobless spell, she was late with her payment. She phoned the court collections officer and told him she was getting the money. It was in her pocket when the police pulled over the car in which she was riding, citing a broken taillight. There was already a warrant; she spent a week in jail before she could see a judge.

On Thursday, Ms. Cain joined five other plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit against the criminal district court here, among others, alleging that judges and court officials have been running an “illegal scheme” in which poor people are indefinitely jailed if they fall behind on payments of court fines, fees and assessments. The suit describes how fees are imposed with no hearing about a person’s ability to pay, and how nearly all components of the local criminal justice system — the judges, the prosecutors, the public defenders — benefit financially to some degree.

“The extent to which every actor in the local New Orleans legal system depends on this money for their own survival is shocking,” said Alec Karakatsanis, a founder of Equal Justice Under Law, a civil rights group, and one of the lawyers who filed the suit….

…[I]n general, said Mr. Karakatsanis, who filed a similar suit in Ferguson, Mo., in February and helped force changes to jailing policies in Montgomery, Ala., last year, “the effort to fund local court systems on the backs of the very poor is not an aberration.”…

The fees can begin accumulating immediately after an arrest, as soon as a bond is set. While a federal court in 1991 struck down a state law allowing New Orleans judges to take a percentage of each bond, a subsequent law mostly reinstituted this arrangement — but split up the percentage among the other actors in the criminal justice system.

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