County fines and fees keep defendants in poverty

By David Eugene Archer Sr.

States and counties charge legal financial obligations to defendants keeping them in poverty, according to The Atlantic.

Alexes Harris, the author of A Pound of Flesh: Monetary Sanctions for the Poor, categorized how jurisdictions across the country place court fines and fees called legal financial obligations (LFOs) on defendants that they are not able to pay.

She spoke to a female victim of domestic violence who spent eight years in prison for shooting the father of her son. She was charged $33,000 in LFOs. Thirteen years later, after making minimum monthly payments, interest caused her to now owe $72,000, according to Harris.

“LFOs reinforce poverty, destabilize community reentry, and relegate impoverished debtors to a lifetime of punishment because their poverty leaves them unable to fulfill expectations of accountability,” Harris wrote.

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, 57 percent of men aged 27 to 42 earned less than $22,500 a year before being imprisoned.

“Because they are frequently unable to pay fines, the formerly incarcerated are often forced to pay punitive, high interest rates on those fines…,” reported Alana Semuels of The Atlantic.

The interest charged adds thousands of dollars to the fines and fees former prisoners already can’t pay, according to Harris.

On average, prisoners in Washington State were sentenced to LFOs of $1,347. If they only pay $5 a month, with 12 percent interest and a $100 annual surcharge, after five years they now owe $1,824, according to Harris.

These fees of former incarcerated include bench-warrant, filing-clerk, court-appointed attorney, crime-lab analysis, DNA-database, jury and incarceration costs. Surcharges are added. Also restitution and the cost of collection, and interest surcharges for payment plans add to the total.

According to a 1991 study by Harris, Heather Evans and Katherine Beckett, just 25 percent of inmates had LFOs. By 2004, 66 percent did.

The Victim Penalty Assessment in Washington State grew 1,900 percent from 1977 to 1996, reported The Atlantic.

The Arizona Legislature added a “felony surcharge” in 1994. After continual increases, by 2012 it reached 83 percent. So, on fees and fines totaling $1,000, an additional $830 must be paid, The Atlantic stated.

These charges vary by state. All 50 states have them. The maximum fine varies from $500 in Massachusetts to $500,000 in Alaska.

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