Yes, Government Law Enforcement Keeps Screwing the Poor


Jesse Walker wisely wrote here the other day that "A Serious Anti-Poverty Agenda Has to Include Criminal Justice Reform." I reported in January on various instances in which the enforcement of petty laws involving the way we move ourselves and our vehicles through the world—and where we deposit them—can ruin the less-well-offs lives for very little good reason in my article "Petty Law Enforcement vs. the Poor."

One thing I learned in my research for that article from academics and workers in the field of poverty aid was that there was very little accumulated sociological knowledge about the true extent of this problem. Last week, the sometimes-good folk at NPR did an interestingly thorough journalistic look at one aspect of this whole issue: court costs.

While not revealing all the facts with social science precision, helps remind anyone who cares that if the government wants to make the lives of the poor less harsh, it can profitably check itself and do some things differently.

It relates sad anecdotes about how very minor infractions can lead to jail time if you don't pay the fines you were first hit with. And it stressed how in most states the government—despite all those taxes we pay—basically wants each offender to cover the costs of their own prosecution, including public defenders, incarcaration, parole supervison, even sometimes jury trials.

The nub of the problem:

The people most likely to face arrest and go through the courts are poor, says sociologist Alexes Harris, at the University of Washington. She's writing a book on these fees and the people who struggle to pay them.

"They tend to be people of color, African-Americans and Latinos," Harris says. "They tend to be high school dropouts, they tend to be people with mental illness, with substance abuse. So these are already very poor and marginalized people in our society, and then we impose these fiscal penalties to them and expect that they make regular payments, when in fact the vast majority are unable to do so."

Many fees can be waived for indigent defendants, but judges are more likely to put the poor on a more manageable payment plan.

Courts, however, will then sometimes tack on extra fees, penalties for missed payments and may even charge interest.

In Washington state, for example, there's 12 percent interest on costs in felony cases that accrues from the moment of judgment until all fines, fees, restitution and interest are paid off in full. As a result, it can be hard for someone who's poor to make that debt ever go away. One state commission found that the average amount in felony cases adds up to $2,500. If someone paid a typical amount — $10 a month — and never missed a payment, his debt would keep growing. After four years of faithful payments, the person would now owe $3,000.

Once you get trapped, often for the stupidest reasons, in this roundrobin of fines and rights and privileges being taken away with the failure to promptly pay them,

"There are a lot of things you can't do. A lot of jobs you can't apply for," says Todd Clear, who studies crime policy and is provost of Rutgers University, Newark. "Lots of benefits you can't apply for. If you have a license, a driver's license that needs to be renewed, you can't renew it. So what it means is you live your entire life under a cloud. In a very real sense, they drop out of the real society."

In one county, NPR found "about a quarter of the people who were in jail for misdemeanor offenses were there because they had failed to pay their court fines and fees."

Some macro-data on the problem:

The number of Americans with unpaid fines and fees is massive. In 2011, in Philadelphia alone, courts sent bills on unpaid debts dating back to the 1970s to more than 320,000 people — roughly 1 in 5 city residents. The median debt was around $4,500. And in New York City, there are 1.2 million outstanding warrants, many for unpaid court fines and fees.

The growth in the number of people who owe court-imposed monetary sanctions shows up in surveys by the U.S. Department of Justice, too: In 1991, 25 percent of prison inmates said they owed court-imposed costs, restitution, fines and fees. By 2004, the last time the Justice Department did the survey, that number climbed to about 66 percent.

Many of these are not statutory punishments for the crime but just fees charged as a matter of court and city and county government policy–because they think they need the money. It can be a substantial cash cow for them.

It again reminded me of my last day in court, for a traffic offense. (I was guilty as hell!) Every single other person there—every one!—was in court facing fines over a thousand and possible jail time over things that started with "minor" fines in the less than a hundred to few hundred level—fines that because of their wealth level they were unwilling or unable, or because of lack of general shit-togetherness didn't manage, to pay on time. It's a crummy situation.