In August 2018, I began interviewing attorneys of the Orleans Parish Public Defenders office (OPD) to help the public better understand the practices of the criminal justice system. I spoke first with Alexis Chernow and learned about bail reform and the Brady Rule (which requires the prosecution to disclose evidence or information favorable to the defendant in a criminal case). In the second interview, I sat down with Brian Woods to discuss the habitual offender law and the recent passing of Amendment Two (which ended the era of “Jim Crow Jury” where a non-unanimous jury could convict). This time, I sat down with Robert McKnight, an infectious optimist, to discuss his beginnings as an attorney, warrant resolutions (getting warrants and attachments resolved without fear of arrest), warrant clinics (which provide legal assistance to help formerly incarcerated persons as well as those who plead out to remedy fines and fees), as well as U.S. District Judge Vance’s ruling last year that ended a three year legal battle over debtors’ prisons.
Why did you decide to work for OPD?
I wanted to work for the Orleans Parish Public Defender’s Office out of a necessity of need. Often times, folks don’t really care about situations until it’s actually at your front door. So I’ve worked in the legislature, in law school, as well as in college. However, my life and my family’s life was totally turned on its head when a close relative of mine was arrested. And just going through the entire judicial process, it really opened my eyes to how things actually work here in New Orleans. And seeing this process take place, I had no choice but to engulf myself in a situation that otherwise we wouldn’t be placed in. And just looking at my cousin and the outcome of his case and the injustices that transpired, as a native New Orleanian (born and raised in Hollygrove and Gert Town), I had no choice but to step up. I had no choice but to be a voice for the voiceless. I left Washington DC, I came back home, and the only smart and the only right decision was to advocate for those in my city. It led me to become a public defender. I’ll make two years coming up shortly, and it’s probably one of the best professional decisions that I have made.
Was there someone who influenced you to become a lawyer?
Yes. I went to Holy Name of Jesus Elementary School on St. Charles Avenue and I’ll never forget my fifth grade teacher, Miss Rome. She was amazing. She left an indelible mark on my life. I’ll never forget on a field trip, I heard a quote that she read by the great Charles Hamilton Houston, and I’ve used this quote on everything: “A lawyer is either a social engineer or he is a parasite on society.” And I chose the former. I wanted to be a social engineer.
What is debtors’ prison?
Well, it’s shameful that we’re in the 21st century and we’re still having conversations about a debtors’ prison, so let’s just start there. And yes we still do have debtors’ prisons here in New Orleans. Simply put, a debtors’ prison is essentially: someone is jailed because they cannot pay their fines and/or fees. Now, let’s put this in proper context. New Orleans ranks number two in the country for folks who paid more than half of their salary on rent… So when you have someone who pleas out—pleads guilty to a case—they’re saddled with fines and fees. Now, these fines and fees, unfortunately does not take any other consideration into account. Now, this is where New Orleans should be shameful. You’re asking someone to plead guilty to a crime, right? Now you’re gonna imprison them because of their inability to pay, but yet you don’t take into consideration their lack of employment, their… indigency, their lack of transportation, their lack of institutionalized knowledge of what it takes to actually fulfill their obligation. I’ve seen clients, time after time, who just simply don’t know what to do, and unfortunately for some judges that’s not a good answer. But sometimes just that institutionalized knowledge—I myself can candidly say—sometimes I have to check in with my supervisors to ask: what just happened? So I can only imagine what it’s like for a layman, who’s never been in court before, to listen to all this legal jargon—this legalese—and they get caught up in a situation where they are in prison because they simply cannot pay fines and/or fees.
So, being that there is a modern-day debtors’ prison in New Orleans, how has that affected your clients?
You have folks making life-changing decisions that no individual should have to make, in a matter of minutes. You’re asking someone who may be newly arrested, may not know why they are arrested because, in their mind, they’ve done their time. However, they are simply arrested because they owe money, i.e. a debtors’ prison. Now, where it affects our clients, our citizens, our friends, our families, our neighbors, someone’s child—now they’re arrested. Guess what happens? I have to contact our client services because someone’s mom is in jail and she won’t be able to pick up her child from daycare at 3 o’clock. I have to call someone’s grandparent to call someone’s job to say, “Hey, John Doe won’t be at work today because he’s in jail.” Now I have to call someone’s grandfather to say, “Hey, I need you to come pay this bond.” Now let’s think about it on a realistic level, on a purely fundamental level. You have folks (as I mentioned earlier) who are paying half their income on housing. Now they’re put in another situation because surely they have not taken into account in their finances to have to bond themselves out. So now, what happens is—and I’ve seen this and I challenge anyone to come and watch this—you have people who look me in the eyes and say, “Mr. McKnight, I’m gonna pay for myself to get out of jail, but how will I pay my light, gas, and water? How do I put food on my table? How would I get diapers for my child? How do I get bus fare to and from?” These are decisions no human being should have to be faced with.
What is warrant resolution in the context of fines and fees?
So, what happens, unfortunately, is that when someone gets arrested in Criminal District Court, state court, they may plead out to a crime, with collateral consequences such as fines and/or fees which often times clients are unable to pay. Now, where we step in is that, unfortunately, years later this individual, they may have a warrant and/or outstanding fines and fees in Municipal Court, which is essentially City Court. Now this individual goes upstate, they do their time… However, while they’re doing their time—let’s say they’re doing five years flat, which means they’re doing five years without any suspended sentence—they’re doing five years without coming home. Now where the warrant and the attachment and the fines and fees kick in is that, no fault of this individual’s own, they’re not brought back to City Court to tend to their outstanding traffic and/or municipal cases. So what happens is—the operation of law—when you don’t show up for court, there’s a warrant out for your arrest. And when you don’t show up for court, fines and fees are attached. So that’s a two-prong approach that affects our clients in a negative fashion… So now you have individuals who go to jail, do their time, pay their debts to society. But they’re released [and] unbeknownst to them, there’s a warrant [and] fines and fees over their head, simply because their warrant was not resolved when they were released. So you’ve got people who get arrested or have a miscellaneous traffic stop for failure to signal, failure to yield; and what happens is, as opposed to them getting a citation for a traffic ticket, they’re being arrested. And they’re being arrested because they have a warrant that precedes their court case. I’ve had individuals being arrested for outstanding fines and fees—this is no hyperbole, this is no tongue-in-cheek—dating back to 1995, 1996. This is shameful. We have to do better, we can do better. So that’s why the warrant clinic is so important.
Can you talk about the purpose of warrant clinics?
To eliminate obstacles that can prevent people from getting jobs and obtaining vehicle insurance, while removing the threat of jail from their lives. [The warrant clinic] gives community members the chance to have fines and fees greatly reduced or waived, allows them to clear municipal warrants, freeing them from the constant fear of arrest for engaging in everyday activities; lets them reinstate suspended driver’s licenses, which opens opportunities for employment…
Generally speaking, when someone has a warrant or has a felony—let’s just be honest—it’s difficult to re-enter. These individuals come into a society in which they don’t have a support system, they don’t have the training, the soft or hard skills. So this is a talent that generally would go untapped, and I do believe that a rising tide lifts us all, so it doesn’t just positively affect me, but it affects the city, because guess what? You have another tax paying citizen, you have another citizen who’s working now, you have another citizen who’s contributing positively to the economic growth and prosperity of this great city… I’ve had a client who was scared to come into court… their fear was that they would come there and be arrested, they would not leave with the same clothes they had on. I said, “Listen, man: work with me. Trust me.” And “trust” is a platitude or word that we throw around so much, and you have a situation where for some demographics, predominantly African-Americans, they say the justice system means “just us,” right? So, you have to first reassure them that when they come to these clinics, that they’re going to leave just how they came. That’s number one. So, working with this guy, just for him to trust me to even agree to come to court was a massive win for a system that has failed them.
He comes into court, now, with the help of our team… we filed motions to quash. I’ll never forget this guy, working with probation and parole, working with Traffic and Municipal Court, this guy had tickets dating back to 1995. And again this is no exaggeration, this is no tongue-in-cheek—he had fines and fees that equalled $35,000, because it just accumulated. Just seeing him having the opportunity to get those things squashed, to get those things removed, to get that burden lifted was a game-changer. And looking this guy in the eyes, knowing that he can maneuver now… it’s not so much the physical moves, it’s the mental moves, because those are the things we can’t see, the thoughts. And those oftentimes are the biggest prisoner, those negative thoughts. So now John Doe has the opportunity to move in a positive manner, mentally, which manifests itself outwardly. So now it’s a game-changer. It’s a generational game-changer, because John Doe’s life has now changed. He can go back Uptown and say, “Man, look what I can do, life is so much better than this, look what it has done for me.”
So I never want to think about these cases in isolation, because… listen: I’m a mentor with the Silverback Society and our motto is “Generations Depend On Me.” So now, John Doe is gonna go back to his respective community and say, “Man, look: if John Doe could do it, you can do it.” And that’s how we begin to effectuate true change. One person at a time, one expungement at a time, one warrant resolution at a time, one motion to quash at a time… This guy’s life is changed. It’s so funny, he goes to my church, he’s working, he has a family, his son is in high school preparing for college—something John Doe never did. He had a 10th grade education. So now we look at a shift in a culture for his family.
“You have people who look me in the eyes and say, “Mr. McKnight, I’m gonna pay for myself to get out of jail, but how will I pay my light, gas, and water? How do I put food on my table? How would I get diapers for my child? How do I get bus fare to and from?” These are decisions no human being should have to be faced with.”
What was U.S. District Judge Vance’s ruling last year in regards to the debtors’ prison lawsuit?
The ruling stipulated that judges can’t preside over hearings to collect fines and fees that will directly benefit the court. This creates an inherent conflict of interest. Additionally, the judges’ policy or practice of not inquiring into the ability of individuals to pay before they are imprisoned for nonpayment of court debts is unconstitutional. The judges have failed to provide a neutral forum for determination of criminal defendants’ ability to pay, which is an inherent conflict of interest.
Are judges refusing to comply with that ruling that Orleans Parish judges uphold “neutral forum” to determine if defendants can pay court fees before being sent to jail?
In cases involving unpaid court fines and fees going into the court’s expense fund, the judges have an unconstitutional conflict of interest, and that there should be some kind of “neutral forum” to determine defendants’ ability to pay in such cases. The judges have failed to provide a neutral forum for determination of criminal defendants’ ability to pay.
How have clients benefited from the Vance Ruling?
Since the ruling, some of our clients have benefitted from that ruling, but there are still far too many being jailed because they can’t pay fines and fees. Essentially, people are imprisoned simply because they are poor.
Why is this important both to the individual and to reform efforts?
When I think about criminal justice reform, often times, it can be a situation in which folks need to understand recidivism is in criminal justice reform. We have to arm these folks who re-enter society with a 21st century education. That is true reform. True reform is providing these individuals with the financial wherewithal, but most importantly the training, where they can re-enter. We have to focus on criminal justice reform from a re-entry standpoint, where we look at rehabilitation. Give these folks a trade, give these folks meaningful training, give these folks an opportunity to provide for themselves.
Listen, it’s shameful to look someone in the eyes and say you want to help them out but they don’t leave better than they came. And this is why what we do at OPD is so important. We have social workers on staff, we have a holistic approach to give a full wrap-around service. And this is so important, because man, look: you tell people all the time that, “I see so much potential in you.” But my dad always said, “Sometimes son, I can’t hear you because your actions aren’t loud enough.” These people need to see action; these people need to see meaningful reform, and that looks like getting these people rehabilitated, back into the work field. I can tell you now, a vast majority of my clients, they will re-enter society. Now the question is, what does that look like? And that’s the question we need to all walk away with. Criminal justice reform, when these people come back home, what does it look like when they’re trying to re-enter society? Because I can tell you now, these people do not want to come into a situation where they enter society and they’re right back into the penal system.
In the context of what I’m speaking on, I like to work with the Urban League, Job1, and STRIVE NOLA; they do great work. Let’s teach these men and women fundamental life-changing skills: how to interview, what to say, how to prepare a resume, how to write a cover letter, how to show up for work on time. That’s true reform. We have to understand that these people want to re-enter and they want to become a citizen, they want a job, they want the “American Dream.” We just have to give these people an opportunity. We have to look past their transgression and provide purely human dignity. As I always say: this is somebody’s son, somebody’s daughter. This is a human.
And when it comes to our office, listen: nobody becomes public defenders or works at this office for the glam and the glory. We know—it’s no secret—we’re underpaid. You gotta do this stuff because you love it. You have to do this stuff because you understand that it’s bigger than you. And once you really look some of these clients in the eyes and you really start to see: you know what, man? You’re good people. We are going to be here for you. And once you really, truly talk to some of these clients, these men and women are just like you and I… no matter the alleged crime—no matter if they’re clad in orange and handcuffs, or a suit and tie—we are all connected.
For more info on re-entry clinics and expungement workshops (held monthly), check out jaclouisiana.org.