Court Fines and Fees ‘Perpetuate’ Poverty: Expert

Experts estimate that criminal-justice debt owed by poor defendants totals tens of billions of dollars, and that number is likely to grow.

Financial penalties assessed by civil and criminal courts on poor defendants are now a leading source of revenue for municipalities around the country and are “perpetuating poverty,” according to an expert with Harvard’s National Criminal Justice Debt Initiative, reports the New York Times Magazine.

Experts estimate that criminal-justice debt owed by poor defendants totals tens of billions of dollars, and that number is likely to grow. National Public Radio, in a survey with the Brennan Center for Justice and the National Center for State Courts, found that 48 states increased civil and criminal court fees from 2010 to 2014.

“The courts are actually aggravating and perpetuating poverty,” said Mitali Nagrecha of  the Harvard group.

Why they do so is a matter of economic reality: In areas hit by recession or falling tax revenue, fines and fees help pay the bills. Many counties engage in civil forfeiture, the seizure of vehicles and cash from people suspected (but not necessarily proved in court) of having broken the law.

Joanna Weiss of the Fines and Fees Justice Center says counties “use the justice system to wring revenue out of the poorest Americans — the people who can afford it the least.”

Aside from taxes, she says, “criminal-justice debt is now a de facto way of funding a lot of American cities.”

The jailing of poor defendants who cannot pay fines has been ruled unconstitutional in Supreme Court cases spanning the 1970s and early 1980s. Decades after those cases were decided, the practice of jailing people who cannot pay persists.

In 2010, the American Civil Liberties Union detailed evidence of “modern-day ‘debtors’ prisons’ ” in Georgia, Michigan, Louisiana, Ohio and Washington State.

Last August, an American Bar Association (ABA) working group recommended a set of 10 guidelines aimed at reducing court fines and fees with the aim of  “building trust in the criminal justice system.”



Attorneys Recommend Reforms of Crippling Court Fines, Fees

The American Bar Association urges courts to adopt a set of 10 guidelines aimed at stopping the incarceration of people solely because they can’t pay fines and fees. “This criminalization of poverty must end,” said one attorney.

The American Bar Association House of Delegates this week overwhelmingly approved a set of 10 guidelines aimed at stopping incarceration of people solely because they can’t pay court fines and fees, reports the ABA Journal. The guidelines are provided to jurisdictions as a best-practices guide to avoiding creating debtors’ prisons in the ordinary course of administering justice. The ABA resolution urges all federal, state, local and tribal jurisdictions to adopt them.

More than 30 years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that jurisdictions may not incarcerate people for debt stemming from inability to pay fines and fees, according to Robert Weiner, chair of the ABA committee that recommended the guidelines. “Far too many state and local legislators treat the justice system like an ATM, imposing exorbitant fines and fees for civil code violations, traffic tickets, misdemeanors, and felonies in order to fund the government,” said Joanna Weiss, co-director of the Fines & Fees Justice Center. “People who can’t immediately pay are trapped in a cycle of punishment and poverty they can rarely escape, hurting individuals, families and communities.” Jaime Hawk of the Washington of the Washington State Bar Association said, “This criminalization of poverty must end.”




A Dirty Yard Could Cost You $200K in CA Desert Cities

Cities in poor sections of the Coachella Valley use privatized prosecutors who bill residents exorbitant “prosecution fees” for minor infractions–$18,000 for a family with a busted garage door and trashy yard, $31,000 for a man who added on to his house without a permit. Advocates say the practice, sanctioned by local city councils, is a thinly veiled money-making scheme.

The Palm Springs Desert Sun investigates a local government practice in California’s Coachella Valley in which property owners guilty of minor offenses are billed “prosecution fees” that can top $200,000. In one 2015 case, Cesar Garcia was fined $900 for failing to get a building permit to expand his living room.  Earlier this year, a law firm that acts as the local prosecutor sent him a $31,000 bill for the cost of his case, threatening liquidation of his house. Garcia’s experience is not unusual in low-income cities of the Coachella Valley. Empowered by city councils in Coachella and Indio, the law firm Silver & Wright has repeatedly filed criminal charges against residents and businesses for public nuisance crimes – overgrown weeds or selling popsicles without a business license – then billed them thousands of dollars to recoup expenses.

Coachella leaders said this week they will reconsider the strategy after defense attorneys challenged in court the exorbitant fees of the privatized prosecutors. “Fixing his house was just a side effect. Collecting this money was always their goal,” said attorney Shaun Sullivan, who represents Garcia. The Desert Sun identified 18 cases in which Indio and Coachella charged defendants more than $122,000 in “prosecution fees” since they hired Silver & Wright as prosecutors a few years ago. With the addition of numerous fees,  the total price tag can rise to more than $200,000. In most of those cases, the disparity between the crime and the cost is staggering. Defendants fined a few hundred dollars ended up paying five or ten times that much to prosecutors who attended a couple of court hearings. One Coachella family with a busted garage door and a trashy yard was billed $18,500.