Added financial responsibilities imposed by states’ criminal justice system is making re-entry into society increasingly difficult for many of those who have run afoul of the law, reports the Brennan Center for Justice.
Many states have introduced “user fees” which are not actually connected to any criminal justice purpose, the Center reports.
These fees are not imposed for punishment, deterrence, or rehabilitation, but rather to fund ever-tightening state budgets, according to the report. “Some of the collection fees are exorbitant and exceed ordinary standards of fairness.”
Some states are creating new user fees and raising existing fees, while at the same time, focusing more resources on collections. “One person in Pennsylvania faced $2,464 in fees alone,” according to the report. The fees were “approximately three times the amount imposed for fines and restitution.”
In all 15 states examined in the report, many debtor/defendants choose jail time to reduce the debt.
The inability to pay has resulted in 14 of the 15 states in the survey to utilize “poverty penalties” – which add late fees and interest to payment plans that often enrich debt collection companies and extend the debt for years.
“Of the 15 states, 13 also charge poor people public defender fees simply for exercising their constitutional right to counsel,” according to the report. “This practice can push defendants to waive counsel, raising constitutional questions and leading to wrongful convictions, over-incarceration and significant burdens on the operation of courts.”
In 2009, a county in North Carolina arrested 564 individuals and jailed 264 of them for failing to pay debt and update address information, the report showed. However, the monies actually collected from this group were less than what it spent on their incarceration.
“Of the 15 states, 13 also charge poor people
public defender fees simply for exercising
their constitutional right to counsel”
A person’s reintegration effort after a criminal conviction is hindered by these practices because they damage credit and interfere with other commitments, according to the report. As an example, eight of the 15 states suspend driver’s licenses for missed payments.
“When courts are pressured to act, in essence, as collection arms of the state, their traditional independence suffers,” the report states. “When probation and parole officers must devote time to fee collection instead of public safety and rehabilitation, they too compromise their roles.”
The report made the following recommendations:
Indigent defendants should be exempt from user fees, and payment plans and other debt collection efforts should be tailored to an individual’s ability to pay.
States should immediately cease arresting and incarcerating individuals for failure to pay criminal justice debt, particularly before a court has made an ability-to-pay determination.
Public defender fees should be eliminated, to reduce pressures that can lead to conviction of the innocent, over-incarceration, and violations of the Constitution.
States should eliminate “poverty penalties” that impose additional costs on individuals who are unable to pay criminal justice debt all at once, such as payment plan fees, late fees, collection fees, and interest.
Policymakers should evaluate the costs of popular debt collection methods such as arrests, incarceration, and driver’s license suspensions – including the salary and time spent by employees involved in collection and the effect of these methods on reentry and recidivism.
Agencies involved in debt collection should extend probation terms or suspend driver’s licenses only in those cases where an individual can afford to repay criminal justice debt but refuses to do so.
Legislatures should eliminate poll taxes that deny individuals the right to vote when they are unable to pay criminal justice debt.
Courts should offer community service programs that build job skills for individuals unable to afford criminal justice debt.