Please enjoy my office’s newsletter discussing how legal obligations contribute to inequality within our society. Please be sure to download the images to this e-mail so you can view the client testimonial and see the pictures.
“Do the crime, pay the fine.” A little different, right? Many are unaware that when convicted of breaking the law, not only do people “pay” for their crimes by doing time, but they are also forced to pay up financially. The costs include court processing, defense attorneys, paper work, and anything else associated with their incarceration and supervision. In fact, anyone convicted of any type of criminal offense is subject to fiscal penalties or monetary sanctions. (If you have ever paid a traffic ticket, for example, you have paid a monetary sanction.)
Legal debt is important. It affects many people-disproportionately poor people and people of color-and it has malicious consequences. And the U.S. criminal justice system affects more and more people: 1 in 37 U.S. adults has spent time in state or federal prisons; more than 700,000 people leave prison each year; and there are an estimated 16.1 million current and former felons in the United States. The debt is accumulating at an unimaginable rate.
Studies of Court Fees Across the United States
The shooting of Michael Brown on August 9, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri generated much discussion about criminal justice policy in the United States. In a report analyzing all the issues in Ferguson, Missouri by the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) who was charged with investigating the shooting of Michael Brown, the DOJ found and highlighted that costly penalties for municipal violations (which saddle individual’s convicted of crimes with criminal debt to the court/state) was a large part of the racial inequality within the justice system that plagued Ferguson, MO. In Ferguson, penalties were assessed regardless of an individual’s ability to pay, and then put individuals who could not afford to pay their debt on payment plans that carry high fees. Every missed or partial payment was treated as a “failure to appear” offense, which may then result in a warrant.
A study by Marc Meredith (associate professor of political Science at Penn) found that the issue with legal financial obligations that the poor face in Ferguson was found and documented across the United States. Meredith researched the role criminal debt played in Alabama. The researchers found that the individual fines and fees might not seem overly burdensome, however, they do accumulate to form a substantial amount of debt. For example, it seems quite reasonable to charge someone convicted of a crime $30 for the investigation of their criminal history and $21 to help fund the Alabama Solicitor General’s Office. However, these seemingly modest finds associated with a single conviction often added up to $2,000 or more which is substantial considering that the median annual income for ex-felons is very low (in Alabama the median income for ex-felons is under $10,000) so you can imagine how the financial obligation of fines and fees negatively and disproportionately impact the poor. This study in Alabama found that these individuals were forced to choose between paying court costs and buying essentials.
Recent research indicates a general increase in court costs over time, leaving more and more individuals with outstanding criminal debt. Failure to pay the criminal justice debt may result in an individual having his or her license suspended or even spending time in jail. In some states, including, without limitation, Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky and Tennessee, restoration of voting right is conditioned on the payment of these legal financial obligations.
Why we should care?
As a result of interest and surcharges that accumulate on these financial penalties, this portion of a person’s sentence becomes permanent legal debt, carried for the remainder of their lives. And because so many who are arrested and convicted are poor, unemployed, homeless, or suffer from mental or physical illnesses, the fines just pile up-unable to be erased through bankruptcy-and tie them, indefinitely, to the criminal justice system. For them, debt is a life sentence.
Law-abiding citizens (or those lucky enough to have never been caught and convicted) should care about this criminal justice practice: it is done in our names. The imposition of legal debt leads people convicted of crimes into further political, social, and economic marginalization. It is unproductive. Monetary sanctions attached to felony convictions are not efficient, effective, or ethical. Alexes Harris, in her writing of “The Cruel Poverty of Monetary Sanctions,” concludes that the most sensible policy is to abolish all non-restitution monetary sanctions for criminal offenses.