No way out: For poor defendants, fines and fees are forever

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“Poor people convicted today face fiscal servitude to the court,” writes sociologist Alexes Harris in A Pound of Flesh, an important and highly readable book about the U.S. criminal justice system that will be published in June. Her research reveals how a complex system of fees and fines creates “a two-tiered system of punishment: one for those with financial means and one for those who are poor.” Legal financial obligations (LFOs) imposed in criminal cases include fines and restitution, but also fees for everything from court libraries and trial by jury to room and board while imprisoned. Besides the original amounts, interest on unpaid LFOs keeps piling up, sometimes along with annual collection fees on the unpaid balance.

All these charges hit poor people hardest. LFOs keep poor people in prison longer, send them back to prison oftener, and add more obstacles to getting or keeping a job when they are free. In one egregious example of the advantages of wealth, money can even buy you a better jail cell:

“In Beverly Hills, California, convicted defendants have the option to prepay $110 per calendar day to serve their sentences in a ‘safe, clean, and secure environment of the Beverly Hills Police Department’s Jail facility.’ … ‘Pay to stay’ inmates who qualify for and participate in the program in Beverly Hills are housed in separate, specially designated cells, segregated from the general population in the jail. Criminal defendants who have the ability to pay can thus serve their sentences in a ‘safe’ and ‘secure’ environment segregated from criminal defendants who have no such ability to pay.”

Discrimination against poor people begins with the first moments of contact with the legal system. While writing the book, Harris was pulled over for speeding. She recounts how privilege worked for her:

“The officer spent more time explaining to me how I could file for what is called a ‘deferred finding’ than he did reprimanding me for speeding. I had the option to go online and pay a fee in addition to the traffic fine, and if I did not receive any further moving violations in the next year, the ticket would not go on my record and would not affect my insurance rate.”

Harris had money. She paid for ticket and for the “deferred finding.” Her record remained clear. Her insurance rate stayed the same. But what if she had been too poor to pay for the privilege of the “deferred finding” or even for the speeding ticket?

“Had I not been able to pay the ticket, I could have eventually lost my driver’s license, received warrants, and even been arrested and incarcerated. People like me are able to take advantage of such ‘deferred’ circumstances, but far more people are not.”

If a defendant cannot pay the court costs, restitution, or fines imposed as conditions of deferred prosecution, then that option is off the table — not only for speeding tickets, but for any other case. Defendants who cannot afford the costs of a trial may plead guilty just to minimize the amount they will have to pay. Defendants who cannot afford bail often plead guilty just to get the case over with and get out of jail with a sentence of time served.

LFOs, however, come on top of jail or prison time. The fines, restitution and fees imposed by the sentencing judge are just the beginning: many states impose fees for “room and board” in prison, or for health care while in prison, or for ankle bracelet monitoring after release, or for parole supervision. No money for an ankle bracelet? Sorry – you stay in prison.

Harris describes a 34-year-old mother of three, an abuse victim who served eight years in prison for assault after shooting the father of her son. The judge ordered her to pay $33,000 in LFOs, including restitution. After serving her time, she got into a construction apprenticeship program and made monthly payments on the LFOs, but ” thirteen years after her conviction, the interest accruing on her outstanding debt had brought the total she owed to $72,000.” That cripples her financial capacity, affecting her credit rating, ability to rent an apartment, employability, and ” transitions through the traditional life-course stages of adulthood, such as completing formal schooling, getting married, and supporting children.”

Another woman told Harris:

“It seems like one of those challenges that are insurmountable. It’s like a paraplegic trying to climb Mount Everest. I mean, it just seems that impossible. It’s like an insurmountable barrier, that seems like, I’m gonna die with this debt hanging over my head. …[It] just seems like this is, not only taking a part of me financially, but it’s taken a piece of me spiritually, you know. It’s taken a part of my soul.”

Even after release from prison, LFOs keep people effectively chained to the system. If an individual fails to make payments, they get summoned back to court. If the judge decides their failure to pay is willful, they may be sent to jail for contempt of court. That’s after serving the original sentence — in effect, they are being sent to jail for owing money.

While the book focuses on the state of Washington, almost all states impose similar legal financial obligations. Sometimes, court fees are imposed even if the person is not convicted. Charges vary from state to state, from county to county, and from judge to judge.

In Minnesota, every person convicted of a felony or misdemeanor or even a petty misdemeanor has to pay a $75 court surcharge in addition to any fine or jail time. Even if a person is indigent and unable to pay, the law requires this surcharge. The only concession: “the sentencing court may authorize payment of the surcharge in installments.” (For parking violations, the surcharge there is only $12.) Someone who asks for a jury trial in a felony case has to pay a $100 jury fee. Minnesota charges a $25 court fee for chemical dependency assessment, in addition to requiring the defendant to pay the actual assessment fee charged by an outside agency. Courts can and do order defendants to pay other charges and fees, including restitution.

The “pound of flesh” in the title refers to Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. In the play, Antonio fails to make payments to a moneylender, so the court orders him to pay a pound of flesh. Harris recounts hearing a prosecutor “describing monetary sanctions as a tool for getting his ‘pound of flesh’ from a defendant; he said that he wanted to ‘screw’ the defendant, whom he believed had caused grave harm to the victim.” She goes on to explain:

“’A pound of flesh’ also captures symbolically the actual indebtedness of many people who are convicted. Reminiscent of the days of slavery, poor people convicted today face fiscal servitude to the court…. Given that race and class are so highly correlated in U.S. society and that the criminal justice system has consistently managed people of color in this country in disproportionate and disparate ways, the system of monetary sanctions has become a key way in which racial and class inequalities in the United States are reproduced and reinforced.”

A Pound of Flesh: Monetary Sanctions as Punishment for the Poor will be published in June by the Russell Sage Foundation, as part of the American Sociological Association’s Rose Series in Sociology. This is an important, eloquent and eminently readable work of scholarship. I recommend it for your summer reading list.


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