Vera Institute of Justice Unravels Financial Contradictions Links to Mass Incarceration

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By Rena Abdusalam

NEW YORK, NY – Researchers and advocates at the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit devoted to equal and aligned U.S justice, charge their data and investigations suggest “Americans live under a tiered justice system.”

Mike Senecal wrote in a blog about the institute recently, “Data consistently indicates what many seem to know intrinsically: Americans live under a tiered justice system. Those without the ability to pay legal fines and fees risk extended incarceration on technicalities, while those with means walk free.

“The American ideal that justice ought to apply equally to everyone runs counter to the financial realities of the US criminal legal system. In the real world, money makes navigating the system far less likely to result in incarceration,” said Senecal.

Senecal added, “Meanwhile, those who lack financial access disproportionately suffer a cascade of negative consequences, including extended imprisonment based solely on poverty and race, when they encounter law enforcement.

Seneca declares the system seems almost built to preserve the inequalities it causes at the price of fairness and social progress, noting that although most people favor an equal justice system when asked, voters, who are free to create the desired system, seem to prefer the status quo.

For-profit money bail—permitted in only two countries, one being the U.S—can leave hundreds of people awaiting trial and languishing on the public’s tab, while others with financial abilities enjoy their freedom, charges the institute.

“If those examples sound like outliers, they’re not,” said Jasmine Heiss, director of the Vera Institute’s In Our Backyards initiative on rural incarceration, and Maria Rafael, acting initiative lead for Vera’s Justice Fines and Fees Project, adding, “If anything, they’re symptoms of a much larger contradiction.”

Their point is that fines and fees, under the presumption of innocence, can often lead to extended incarceration sentences for those without the ability to pay.

According to Rafael, whose work includes data on government collection of fines and fees, the system immensely harms communities of color, especially Black, Latinx, indigenous communities, and people living in poverty. However, this can be thought of as a result of underlying financial disparities that lead people in poverty to a different path.

Individuals accrue fines, but they accumulate fees merely from moving about the system. Simply paying a fine can add another fee: “Many folks pay to access legal counsel even when they qualify as indigent,” Rafael said.

The person is required to pay a fee, in order to access the free government service. “Often these are court-ordered — folks have no choice but to opt-in, and they’re expected to pay to complete the terms of their probation and successfully move on,” she stated.

Some examples even expand to fees that are assessed at criminal conviction. Such instances include court processing, DNA collection, urinalysis fees, and fees given after sentencing, like fees to take part in probation.

“The point is that many people can’t pay these fines and fees. Simply touching the system to address the problem results in an additional burden,” added Senecal in the blog. “They continue their ties to the system for longer. And they continue to be accountable and surveilled by the system while accumulating sometimes crushing debt. It’s no wonder that many spiral into extended incarceration.”

Rafael argued, “People often talk about a tiered system of justice, but it’s obvious when folks who have the means can buy their way out of the system at virtually no cost relative to their resources. On the other side of the coin, people who don’t have the means just experience a kind of snowballing effect.”

“States and counties trading unpaid fines and fees for jail time end up getting a bad deal all around,” Rafael said. “The government spends money to enforce collection and incarceration without receiving a single dollar in return. The people who pay, pay with their person and by subjecting their bodies to incarceration.”

Heiss, project director of In Our Backyards, goes on to say that it’s not just about the money.

Heiss, who analyzes the shifting geography of mass imprisonment toward smaller areas, said that as little as 24 hours in jail makes someone more likely to be arrested. Losing jobs, housing, and custody of children is also more likely.

“You’re working at cross purposes,” she said. “You’re trying to get blood from a stone while almost guaranteeing you’ll see some of those people in the system again.”

Senecal explained, “For-profit money bail works the same way. Bail bond agents extract fees for surety coverage obtained through one of a relatively few large underwriting firms. Again, the system doesn’t have its priorities straight.”

“It’s a massive industry with power concentrated in very few hands,” stated Heiss. “There’s real staying power in the mythology that money bail is the mechanism to get people back into court because they have skin in the game.”

However, data seems to not show that. It is shown that creating a more encouraging pretrial service is a more fortunate intervention, Heiss added, noting, rural areas, like those in the In Our Backyards initiative, have additional layers of complexity because of the local law enforcement.

“People who don’t come to court are vulnerable and marginalized and often struggling with very real barriers, including things as basic as transportation or access to childcare,” declared Heiss.

Vera Institute notes that due to every area having a distinct justice system, these layers of complexity are often multiplied by thousands. Similar cases can produce different outcomes because of local law enforcement and sentencing traditions.

By translating research into policy and advocacy, the Vera Institute says it acts as an incubator for associations of local stakeholders, national fiscal policy experts, researchers, and past incarcerated people.

Operating in New Mexico, Washington, and Virginia, the Justice Fines and Fees Initiative works to confer statutory authorities on all levels, explains the institute, adding the work includes eliminating criminal fees, improving sentence practices involving fines, and reducing consequences to make certain debt does not follow people around for years after sentencing.

The group suggests money bail can sometimes be the deciding factor in whether defendants are free before trial.

“You’re looking at people who have already been pushed to the margins in many ways, disproportionately black, brown, and poor people who feel the weight of a system that stigmatizes and marginalizes them,” stated Heiss.

“And then they’re coming into the criminal legal system and having their poverty and precarity further compounded, first by money bail and then by all of the fines, fees, and costs that pile up on top of that,” Heiss adds.

Court fines inflicted at conviction helping fund the school system in New Mexico is one of the many examples of inefficient fines and fees, Heiss said, noting, more sentencing in New Mexico leads to better public schools.

The group states deterrents in structure seem to be working against each other—not considering a different approach to justice, less incarceration, and less public revenue that could have positive effects, voters select jobs and schools without doing so.

“Fines and fees not only harm the individuals who owe them and have to pay them,” ended Rafael. “They’re also no way to fund a government.”

About The Author

Rena is a junior at Davis Senior High School and is currently exploring her interest in the criminal justice system. After high school, she plans to attend college and continue to pursue a career in law.

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