Revised Miranda warning: If you cannot afford an attorney, you may be charged court fees and jailed for failing to pay them

Guilty and charged, NPR’s devastating series on the criminal injustice system, describes the insanity of charging court fees to indigent defendants and then sending them to jail for failing to pay.

The Miranda warning, familiar to everyone from TV cop shows, includes some variant of, “You have a right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.”

In many states, that translates more accurately to: “If you cannot afford an attorney, we will charge you an application fee to ask for a public defender. And then we’ll charge you court fees and a fee for being represented by the public defender. And if you can’t pay, we’ll put you in jail for not paying the fees.”

And it gets worse:

“In Washington state, for example, there’s 12 percent interest on costs in felony cases that accrues from the moment of judgment until all fines, fees, restitution and interest are paid off in full. As a result, it can be hard for someone who’s poor to make that debt ever go away. One state commission found that the average amount in felony cases adds up to $2,500. If someone paid a typical amount — $10 a month — and never missed a payment, his debt would keep growing. After four years of faithful payments, the person would now owe $3,000.”

NPR’s state-by-state breakdown shows that Minnesota charges fees for

  • Electronic monitoring
  • Probation or supervision
  • Public defender or legal costs
  • Room and board [in prison or jail]
  • Increased civil and/or criminal fees since 2010.

Is it legal to send people to jail because they don’t have money for court fees? The short answer: no. NPR explains:

“Debtors prisons were outlawed in the United States nearly 200 years ago. And more than 30 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court made it clear: Judges cannot send people to jail just because they are too poor to pay their court fines.”

That was the Bearden v. Georgia case. Right now, there are probably thousands of similar cases. Judges have to decide who is willfully refusing to pay and who just can’t come up with the money. Take a look at the cases that NPR features, and decide for yourself whether this looks like justice.  My favorite: Tom Barrett of Augusta, Georgia shoplifted a can of beer worth less than two dollars, and ended up in jail for two months. According to NPR’s summary,  “There was no jail time for the shoplifting, but the terms of his release required him to wear an electronic monitoring device. And the $12 a day rental fee was more than the homeless man could afford.”

For more on jailing people for court fees, see ACLU’s series on debtors prisons here.

Oh, and “regular” debtors prisons for just not paying your bills? Those are also staging a comeback.

Like the criminal cases, the modern debtors prison system focus not on the debt, but on failure to comply with court orders. Amounts to the same thing — according to a March 2011 article in that liberal rag, the Wall Street Journal:

“Arrest warrants generally can be issued if a borrower defies a court order to repay a debt or doesn’t show up in court. Retailers, credit-card issuers, landlords and debt collectors are the most frequent seekers of such orders, according to court filings and interviews with judges and lawyers.”

How widespread is the practice?

“More than a third of all U.S. states allow borrowers who can’t or won’t pay to be jailed. Judges have signed off on more than 5,000 such warrants since the start of 2010 in nine counties with a total population of 13.6 million people”

Also in 2011, NPR told the story of Robin Sanders, who owed $730 on a medical bill. She went to jail — though she said she never got notice of the collection agency’s lawsuit or that she had been held in contempt of court for failing to appear.

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