The cost of criminalising poverty

Alexes Harris

Americans often pay for their crimes twice — first with a prison sentence, then with a lifetime of debt many will never be able to escape. Last year’s scathing Department of Justice report on Ferguson, drew national attention to shameful practices to extract revenue from our poorest citizens through inordinate fines for minor offences such as traffic violations. But much less attention has been paid to fines and fees forced on those who are convicted of felonies, which plays a similarly destructive role in our society and erodes confidence in our justice system.
As a result of mass conviction and incarceration over the past 20 years, the US is increasingly turning to law violators to pay beyond their sentences. This money funds not only our justice system, but also non-justice related functions like supporting publicly financed political campaigns. Adult felony defendants in Washington state, for example, are routinely charged $600 for a conviction ($500 for a penalty assessment and, in many circumstances, another $100 for a DNA extraction). Additional discretionary fees, including $450 for the use of a public defender and $200 for court costs, mean that defendants state-wide can be charged on average $1,000 per felony conviction in addition to other sentences such as jail, community service and supervision.
Those who are poor and unable to fully pay their court bill are then charged 12% interest (a staggering rate akin to those charged by payday lenders), a $100 annual collection surcharge and even per-payment “convenience” fees. These practices leave many saddled with debt and often unable to piece their lives back together, long after they have served their time.
Court officials in Washington employed paternalistic monitoring mechanisms and judgment practices, according to court clerks and prosecutors. Some required defendants to stay in constant communication regarding their housing and employment. In addition, strict due dates for payments left debtors at the mercy of court officials who had discretion to decide if debtors were in or out of compliance. If people missed payments, judges issued warrants and sheriffs picked up debtors who were often homeless and found sleeping in parks. Upon payment debtors were told to carry their payment receipts with them at all times just in case police stopped them for non-payment related warrants.
The fact that a man in Clark County, Washington who was suffering from stage four cancer, another who was homeless, and others with significant physical and mental limitations were found by judges to have the ability to make payments on fines and fees makes it hard to see this aspect of the justice system as anything but punishment simply for being poor. When I asked how a homeless defendant could possibly find the means for court-ordered debt payment, I was told “there’s good money to be made in standing along the street corner and asking.”
Such unfairness undermines the basic tenets of justice in America. But we do not need to tolerate the status quo. There are many common-sense policy reforms we can implement that would help make our justice systems fairer and more equitable. To start, states and local jurisdictions should assess their system of fines and fees in order to ensure that the poor are no longer facing permanent punishment, but instead can serve attainable sentences, atone for their violations of the law, and move forward with their lives. Certainly, states should not charge interest on fiscal penalties. It makes no sense for people whom the court deems indigent – and who have qualified for public defenders — to be forced to pay fines and fees in addition to their sentences.
In providing safeguards for the poor in our courtrooms, states can create more efficient, effective and ethical systems of justice. States can also decrease the need for expensive financial collections programs and cut the cost of incarcerating the poor—which neither states nor local jurisdictions can afford. Most critically, such policy changes would help give millions of Americans what they are owed after serving their time: a second chance. The writer is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Washington.
— Courtesy: USA Today

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