What could be worse than bypassing the messy process of imposing taxes to instead use fines and court fees as revenue-generating tools so that people are penalized for exactly the wrong reasons? How about then leveraging the efficiency of private firms to collect those fines and fees, and levy more of their own, so that you're deputizing for-profit companies to wield the coercive power of the state, but largely divorced from those vestigial legal restraints and constitutional concerns that hobble the state itself?
The New York Times tells a woeful tale "about the mushrooming of fines and fees levied by money-starved towns across the country and the for-profit businesses that administer the system. The result is that growing numbers of poor people, like Ms. Ray, are ending up jailed and in debt for minor infractions." The system is a lot like the old-fashioned practice of tax-farming, under which favored private businesses would purchase from the state the right to collect taxes, keeping whatever they could shake loose above what they'd forked over for the privilege. The practice wasn't exactly popular, since the tax farmers had every incentive to twist arms and pad bills to make sure they at least broke even (and they generally did much better).
But the current practice is, in some ways worse, since the "tax farmers" aren't collecting official taxes — they're gathering up minor fines and fees that most local governments can't be bothered to collect themselves, and which were never intended for raising revenue. The "Ms. Ray" of Childersburg, Alabama, mentioned above, "was handed over to a private probation company and jailed" after failing to pay a fine for speeding and having her license revoked — because, she claims, she was told the wrong date for the court appearance (an error that produces lots of hits if you Google it). The original $179 speeding ticket turned into a budget-busting $1,500 whopper. Even after being tossed in the can she was "charged an additional fee for each day behind bars."
Like Ms. Ray, the other people mentioned by the Times aren't necessarily flawless innocents. There's a man who fell behind on child support payments, another who was fined for public drunkenness … After the fees and fines tallied up to levels that these already cash-strapped individuals couldn't afford, they found themselves in modern debtors prison.
These fees and fines add up, first of all, because the folks imposing them are directly benefiting from them.
Stephen B. Bright, president of the Southern Center for Human Rights, who teaches at Yale Law School, said courts were increasingly using fees "for such things as the retirement funds for various court officials, law enforcement functions such as police training and crime laboratories, victim assistance programs and even the court's computer system." He added, "In one county in Pennsylvania, 26 different fees totaling $2,500 are assessed in addition to the fine."
Officials can get away with this, the Conference of State Court Administrators said in a recent report (PDF) on the growing phenomenon of courts turning into revenue generators, because:
Most courts agree that court costs imposed in criminal proceedings must bear a reasonable
relationship to the expenses of prosecution …
This line of cases generally holds that as long as a criminal assessment is reasonably related to the costs of administering the criminal justice system, its imposition will not render the courts "tax gatherers" in violation of the separation of powers doctrine, and that costs may be imposed without a precise relationship to the actual cost of the particular
So courts are supposed to benefit from any fees they impose, which creates an incentive to rack 'em up, And that's before the modern tax farmers add "enrollment fees" and their own regular charges.
Theoretically, defendants in these cases, which involve misdemeanors, are entitled to legal counsel, but informing them of that right and delivering such representation doesn't seem to be a hugely pressing priority for anybody involved.
The end result is an old-fashioned mercantilist or modern corporatist (everything old is new again!) crony system of powerful officials and favored companies teaming up to milk people who have limited resources with which to resist.