An NPR study shows that many are being incarcerated for not paying exuberant court fees, some are even being billed for their own public defenders.
Stephen Papa of Grand Rapids, Mich., is an Iraq War veteran. While homeless and unable to find a job after being discharged, Papa was charged with destruction of property and resisting arrest.
Assessed with $2,600 in court and legal fees, Papa’s presiding judge placed the veteran on a $50 per month payment plan. However, as Papa only brought $25 with him to court that day, the judge found him in default of the payment plan and sentenced him to 22 days in jail.
Tom Barrett of Augusta, Ga., shoplifted a can of beer that was worth less than $2. For the crime, Barrett was ordered to wear an electronic monitoring device in lieu of jail time. At $12 per day, the homeless man was unable to afford the rental fee and was subsequently sentenced to 12 months in jail. (He ended up serving two.)
Papa and Barrett are part of a troubling trend in the United States. On Monday, NPR published the results of a year-long investigation into the expanding use of user fees in the U.S. court system. In an overwhelming number of cases, the use of these fees is fostering a situation in which the poor face harsher treatment and steeper penalties than those who are able to pay — even when they’re found guilty of identical crimes. This trend represents de facto economic discrimination in the legal system.
According to the Constitution, a defendant is entitled to counsel in court, a trial by jury, due process under the law and a speedy trial. NPR has found that almost all states now charge defendants for some or all of these constitutionally-protected guarantees. For example, 43 states and the District of Columbia charge for the use of a public defender. Currently, 41 states charge room and board fees for jail and prison stays. All states, except Hawaii and the District of Columbia, charge for the use of mandated electronic monitoring devices, and 44 states bill defenders for probation and parole supervision.
Worse, despite the 1983 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Bearden v. Georgia declaring that a defendant cannot be imprisoned for failing to pay a court fee if the defendant has no means to pay it, many courts have sentenced defendants to jail or prison for violations of payment orders — as in the cases of Papa and Barrett.
The unfairness of the fees
These fees can be foreign to the defendant’s case. An example of this can be seen with the case of Frederick Cunningham, who pleaded guilty in Allegan County, Mich., to forging an official prescription for pain medication. When Cunningham challenged the fees, testimony from a court official indicated that $500 went to reimburse Cunningham’s court-provided attorney’s expenses. The other $500 of Cunningham’s assessed $1,000 in court fees went to the cost of running the courthouse — including court employees’ salaries, heating and telephone bills, copy machines and the cost of the county employees’ fitness gym.
“The only reason that the court is in operation and doing business at that point in time is because that defendant has come in and is a user of those services,” Michael Day, the administrator for the Allegan County Circuit Court, told NPR. “They don’t necessarily see themselves as a customer because, obviously, they’re not choosing to be there. But in reality they are.”
As most arrestees tend to be poor, undereducated or substance abusers, or have mental illnesses — the marginalized members of society — these fees and fines are imposing responsibility for underwriting the judicial system to those least capable of doing so. This presents a secondary level of punishment after the initial punishment has been served — chronic indebtitude.
In Washington state, for example, instead of dismissing court fees for the indigent — as some states do — the state imposes a 12 percent interest fee of felony count court fees from the moment the judgment is declared until all fines, fees, restitution and interest are paid in full. This is despite the court approving a payment plan. If, for example, a defendant paid the typical amount for the state — $10 per month — without missing a payment on the average felony court fees bill of $2,500, the defendant would still owe the state $3,412.22 after four years, $4,447.02 after seven and $5,927.58 after 10 years. After 25 years, the original $2,500 user fee — after the defendant has spent $3,000 to repay it — would still have a balance of $30,494.81 due.
Being sentenced twice for the same offense
In many states, failure to pay the user fees is a probation violation. Depending on the state, the consequence of this can range from a loss of government service access — such as the right to have a driver’s license or participation in benefit services such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — to imprisonment. This undercuts the defendant’s ability to work or to care for his or her children, and it may lead the defendant to go underground to avoid the police. This has a chilling effect on those that are attempting to re-enter society and get back on their feet after prison.
As states are increasingly under pressure to find funding for the courts, the implementation of user fees has become exceedingly popular, but many feel that the practice has gotten out of hand. In Philadelphia, for example, roughly one in five city residents have unpaid court debts, with a median debt of $4,500. In New York City, there are 1.2 million outstanding warrants, with most being for unpaid court fines and fees. With up to 85 percent of all inmates now leaving jail or prison owing user fees, these numbers will continue to grow.
In November, New Jersey launched a four-day Fugitive Safe Surrender program, in which individuals with outstanding court fees can have them reevaluated — typically, for pennies on the dollar. This month, in response to a court challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union, Colorado signed a law declaring that a person cannot be sent to jail for inability to pay fines and fees, and increasingly, courts are blocking the implementation of such fees.
Until the practice is banned entirely, though, user fees will continue to create a higher standard of punishment on the poorest individuals.
“If you have resources, a court fine and fee isn’t a big deal. You can pay that money. You can walk free. But for people who are already poor, the court fine and fee is in essence an additional sentence,” said Vanessa Torres Hernandez, an attorney with the ACLU.