Court Fines and Fees Are Literally Trapping Poor People in the System for Life

Maurice Possley (left) chairs a panel on justice including Amir Whitaker (center), staff attorney for the ACLU of Southern California and Shyra Hill, intern for Juveniles for Justice

When you think of pressing criminal justice reform issues you may think of wrongful convictions, over-prosecution, the death penalty, the crisis of indigent defense, maybe bail reform and probably a whole host of other things before you get to this one: fines and fees.  Even as someone who had an inkling of the problem – my three days spent at John Jay College in New York was an eye-opening experience.

What we greatly under-appreciate is the extent to which fines and fee put a heavy burden on those people who end up in the court system – some for crimes, but others for things as simple as traffic violations that tack on huge fees to make it so that people cannot afford to pay them.

As Lisa Foster, one of the panelists, who works for a group called Fines and Fees Justice Center put it, “(This is a ) cycle of punishment and poverty that is quite literally keeping people trapped in the justice system for a long long time.”

Tara Mikkilineni, whose group Civil Rights Corps successfully challenged license revocation laws in Tennessee, explained, “The disparities between poor and not poor were huge and once you threw race into the mix, it was astounding.”

Alexes Hill, sociology professor at the University of Washington

Alexes Harris, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington and author of a book, “A Pound of Flesh: Monetary Sanctions as a Punishment for the Poor,” she tracks how the system penalizes individuals with penalties that escalate to the point where they turn minor offenses, even traffic violations, into exorbitant debts or jail terms.

“One problem is the perverse incentives that are built into the system because so many of the actors are reliant on fines and fees for revenue,” said Joanna Weiss, co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center.

Joanna Weiss – co-director of Fines and Fees Justice center

Like others, she blames this on “an aversion in this country to tax increases, which of course would be the equitable way of funding government, where everyone pays their fair share.”

Her research found that the average city earns about 1.4 percent of its revenue from court-imposed fines and fees – but she also found that for every one percent increase in revenue generated from this system, there is an associated 3.7 percent decrease in the violent crime clearance rate.

“That makes perfect sense,” she said. “If you’re using law enforcement to raise revenue, you’re not going to protect public safety.”

Nusrat Choudhury, Deputy director, ACLU Racial Justice program (speaks), with Becca Curry, Colorado ACLU (left) and Dami Animaschaun with Civil Rights Corps (right)

Nusrat Choudhury, Deputy director, ACLU Racial Justice program pointed out that one of the big problems in these system is that there are often penalties that include jail without having representation.  These courts however are “fundamentally lawyerless” and “sometimes the judges aren’t even lawyers.

“Having counsel becomes critical,” she explained.  “Not having someone stand next to you in court…  without an advocate, who has a chance in hell of getting out of this system?

“We have morphed into a criminal legal system that is sucking people for money whether it’s through pre-trial diversion, whether it’s through fines and fees imposed, and often jailing people illegally to get that money as a coercive threat to get people to pay when they don’t have any,” she said.

The panel of Matthew Shaer, Sarah Stillman (center), and Melissa Sanchez (left).

The human cost of this is enormous, as three journalist panelists on Thursday demonstrated in their work in their respective publications.

Sarah Stillman, who writes for the New Yorker, in 2014 wrote: “Get Out of Jail, Inc.” – she tracked the story of Harriet Cleveland whose troubles began with traffic tickets. “When she couldn’t pay her fines, she was sentenced to two years’ probation with Judicial Correction Services, which added its own fees. Her debts soon mounted.”

Matthew Shaer in the New York Times wrote in January: “How Cities Make Money by Fining the Poor” – he found: “In many parts of America, like Corinth, Miss., judges are locking up defendants who can’t pay — sometimes for months at a time.”

Then there is the series of articles by Melissa Sanchez in ProPublica on the Chicago ticket system whereby each year, there are millions of traffic tickets with the revenue going to help the cash-strapped city, but it’s putting residents into debt and bankruptcy.

As several panelists pointed out, we are using these fines and fees on our poorest citizens to fund a system we are unwilling to properly fund through taxes and that not only increases the burden on them, but it doesn’t allow them to escape poverty and the criminal justice system.

As Marc Levin from the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think-tank, put it, the system is supposed to be about public safety and restoring people to their place in society, and “this stuff really interferes.”

Dami Animashaun

Dami Animashaun, Civil Rights Corps attorney, explained that the good news in Arizona is that everyone accused of simple possession of drugs for a first or second time offense is given the opportunity to participate in a pretrial diversion program.  The bad news though: even possessing trace amounts of marijuana in Arizona is a felony.  The only state in the nation where that is the case.

“On the face that seems wonderful,” he said speaking of the diversion program.  “It seems like progress – a step forward.”

But these programs are not a “win-win” for everyone and some people are categorically excluded from these programs.  In Maricopa County, the cost for this program is $1000.  “If you can’t pay, you don’t have the opportunity to participate in diversion,” he explained.

Worse yet is they are often allowed to enter the program, “but you can’t get off the program until you pay a certain amount of money.”

This is a way to finance the criminal justice system.  The County Attorney in Maricopa, for example is getting $2 million a year from this program.  While diversion seems like a progressive change, in fact, they have found that this “program is just a way to expand the criminal justice system.

“”Why are they prosecuted for trace amounts of marijuana?” he asked.  “Prosecutors don’t want to try these cases.  This is a way to deal with people and a way to make money by dealing with this class of people.”

Like the other programs, this is a two-tiered system.  If you have money, the program is simple, you pay the $1000 and you complete the program in three months.  But if after 15 to 17 months, you can’t pay that money, he said, “Most people drop out and take a felony drug possession.”

He argued it takes “a super human effort” often to get through the program and “people shouldn’t have to be super human.

“It’s important to understand how someone who has money is able to buy their way out of jail or prison, so you’re much better off in our justice system if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent,” Sam Brooke, the Deputy Director of the Southern Poverty Law Center said Thursday.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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