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September 2015 Newsletter: How Fines and Court Fees Contribute to Inequality

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    “Do the crime, pay the fine.” That sounds a little different, right?

    Many are unaware that when convicted of breaking the law, not only do people “pay” for their crimes by doing time, but they are also forced to pay up financially. The costs include court processing, defense attorneys, paperwork, and anything else associated with their incarceration and supervision. In fact, anyone convicted of any criminal offense is subject to fiscal penalties or monetary sanctions. (If you have ever paid a traffic ticket, for example, you have paid a monetary sanction.)

    Legal debt is important. It affects many people—disproportionately poor people and people of color—and it has malicious consequences. And, the U.S. criminal justice system continues to affect more and more people: 1 in 37 U.S. adults has spent time in state or federal prisons; more than 700,000 people leave prison each year; and there are an estimated 16.1 million current and former felons in the United States. The debt is accumulating at an unimaginable rate.

    Studies of Court Fees Across the United States

    The shooting of Michael Brown on August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri, generated much discussion about criminal justice policy in the United States. A report analyzing all the issues in Ferguson, Missouri by the Department of Justice (DOJ) highlighted the costly penalties for municipal violations (which saddle individual’s convicted of crimes with criminal debt to the court/state) as a large part of the racial inequality within the justice system that plagued Ferguson.

    In Ferguson, penalties were assessed regardless of an individual’s ability to pay, and then put individuals who could not afford to pay their debt on payment plans that carry high fees. Every missed or partial payment was treated as a “failure to appear” offense, which may then result in a warrant.

    A study by Marc Meredith, an associate professor of political science at Penn, discovered that the issue with legal financial obligations that the poor face in Ferguson was found and documented across the United States. Meredith researched the role criminal debt played in Alabama. The researchers found that individual fines and fees might not seem overly burdensome, but they accumulate to form a substantial amount of debt.

    For example, it seems quite reasonable to charge someone convicted of a crime $30 for the investigation of their criminal history and $21 to help fund the Alabama Solicitor General’s Office. However, these seemingly modest fines associated with a single conviction often added up to $2,000 or more—which is substantial considering that the median annual income for ex-felons is very low. (In Alabama, the median income for ex-felons is under $10,000.) This study found that these individuals were forced to choose between paying court costs and buying essentials.

    Recent research indicates a general increase in court costs over time, leaving more and more individuals with outstanding criminal debt. Failure to pay the criminal justice debt may result in an individual having his or her license suspended or even spending time in jail. In some states, including, without limitation, Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, and Tennessee, restoration of voting rights is conditioned on the payment of these legal financial obligations.

    Why Should We Care?

    As a result of interest and surcharges that accumulate on these financial penalties, this portion of a person’s sentence becomes permanent legal debt, carried for the remainder of their lives. And because so many who are arrested and convicted are poor, unemployed, homeless, or suffer from mental or physical illnesses, the fines just pile up—unable to be erased through bankruptcy—and tie them, indefinitely, to the criminal justice system. For them, debt is a life sentence.

    Law-abiding citizens (or those lucky enough to have never been caught and convicted) should care about this criminal justice practice: it is done in our names. The imposition of legal debt leads people convicted of crimes into further political, social, and economic marginalization. It is unproductive.

    Monetary sanctions attached to felony convictions are not efficient, effective, or ethical. Alexes Harris, in her writing of The Cruel Poverty of Monetary Sanctions, concludes that the most sensible policy is to abolish all non-restitution monetary sanctions for criminal offenses.

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