Ed Spillane, a judge in the College Station, TX municipal court, writes about his approach to reduce the abuse of monetary sanctions in the Washington Post:
What to do with these cases? In Tate v. Short , a 1971 Supreme Court decision, the justices held that jail time is not a proper punishment for fine-only criminal cases, citing the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. But in many jurisdictions, municipal judges — whether they’re overworked, under pressure to generate revenue through fees, skeptical of defendants’ claims to poverty or simply ignorant of the law — are not following the rules. As a result, far too many indigent defendants are cited for contempt of court and land behind bars for inability to pay.
There’s another way, and I’ve been experimenting with it in my own courtroom.
The Advancement Project just issued a new report that details how an anti-immigrant driving law has had severe impacts on communities of color in the state.
The DOJ recently issued a new set of recommendations to state and local legislators and judges recommending broad reforms to the imposition of monetary sanctions and consequences for non-payment. In particular, they reinforce the unconstitutionality of incarcerating individuals for non-payment of fines and fees when they are unable to pay. Principal Investigator Alexes Harris was part of the White House convening that helped inform DOJ on monetary sanctioning practices around the country.
The US Department of Justice recently convened a summit on the practice and impact of monetary sanctioning. Details on the findings of the summit and its recommendations are posted here.
The Chicago Tribune has a recent story detailing Illinois’ practice of suing formerly incarcerated people to pay for their own incarceration.
Recent efforts by the ACLU and SPLC to target municipalities for abuses of court fines and fees, as well as incarceration for non-payment are receiving national attention.
Civil rights lawyers are using a new strategy to change a common court practice that they have long argued unfairly targets the poor.
At issue is the way courts across the country sometimes issue arrest warrants for indigent people when they fall behind on paying court fees and fines owed for minor offenses like traffic tickets. Last year, an NPR investigation showed that courts in all 50 states are requiring more of these payments. Now attorneys are aggressively suing cities, police and courts, forcing reform.
Since September, six lawsuits were filed against New Orleans; Rutherford County, Tenn.; Biloxi and Jackson, Miss.; Benton County, Wash.; and Alexander City, Ala. In the past year, lawyers have also won settlements that have forced courts to change practices in Montgomery, Ala.; DeKalb County, Ga.; and St. Louis County, Mo.
Biloxi is the latest city to be sued. Nusrat Choudhury, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union who filed the lawsuit, charges the city runs an illegal “debtors’ prison” when it puts indigent people in jail without adequately trying to determine whether the person has the means to pay court fines and fees or without then offering adequate alternative ways to pay off a fine, like being offered the chance to do community service.
Listen to the full story from NPR’s All Things Considered
Radley Balko writes about the debtor’s prison in Biloxi for the Washington Post
The Southern Poverty Law Center is attempting to force municipalities to stop using private companies to collect on monetary sanctions, an arrangement that adds another layer of financial hardships on top of already burdensome fines and fees.
Fifty-four towns and cities across Alabama have reported to the Southern Poverty Law Center that they either have or intend to terminate their contracts with a for-profit company that collects traffic fines and other minor court debt for municipalities by charging illegal fees and threatening impoverished Alabamians with jail, the SPLC announced today.
In June, the SPLC urged officials in almost 100 municipalities to end their contracts with the company, Judicial Correction Services (JCS). The letter from the SPLC warned that the contracts are illegal and that the tactics used by JCS to collect fines can amount to extortion. Some of the Alabama municipalities had already severed ties with the company without the SPLC’s urging.
“These cities and towns are doing the right thing by cutting ties with Judicial Correction Services,” said Sam Brooke, SPLC deputy legal director. “Our investigation in Clanton shows that JCS is built on a business model that squeezes money out of the poor, often by resorting to illegal tactics. The leaders in these cities and towns have recognized that a contract with JCS is bad for their communities. We’re pleased they have done the right thing to avoid litigation.”
Approximately 50 towns are believed to still have contracts with JCS. The SPLC is awaiting their decision. The SPLC also warned approximately 30 towns this week that have contracts with similar for-profit companies.
Read more about this effort at the The Southern Poverty Law Center.
Professor Harris’ research on monetary sanctions in Washington was cited in this powerful Seattle Times editorial published yesterday:
THIS is how a modern-day debtors’ prison works.
You are convicted of a felony drug offense. As part of a two-year prison term, a judge imposes $2,300 in fines and fees, without taking into account your ability to pay.
A 12 percent interest rate begins ticking when the gavel drops. The bill keeps right on growing through the prison term; by the time you get out, $600 in interest has been added to the balance. By then, the debt is being handled by a collection agency, which imposes its own fees. Additional fees include paying by credit card, for paying in installments and for missing payments.
If you lose your job, or prioritize feeding your kids over paying the court fines, you face one extra hazard if you happen to live in Benton County: being sent back to jail, or being sent to work on a work crew — at a cost of $5 a day, cash.
Read the full editorial at the Seattle Times
Professor Martin recently discussed ways to improve the way that courts assess monetary sanctions
Cash-register justice incarcerates or keeps on probation many people who are not dangerous, just poor. And taxpayers are being abused by legislators who keep heaping fees on offenders. The lawmakers are not considering the enormous cost of jailing those who can’t pay, the cost of collecting their debts, or the cost to society of turning a civil violator into an incarcerated criminal.
“I don’t think legislators know this is not working — that the fees on the books are costing more money than they are bringing in,” said Karin Martin, an assistant professor of public management at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. The Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, for example, looked at the incarceration of 246 people in Mecklenburg County, N.C., who fell behind on their court debt. The county collected $33,476, but jailing them cost $40,000.
Legislatures should not be making courts pay for themselves. It creates terrible injustice and ruins lives. It perverts justice by giving courts an incentive to convict. But if judicial systems are going to be made to pay their own way, it should be done fairly.
One way is to use the day fine. Rather than a set dollar amount, it is a percentage or multiple of an offender’s daily income — hence the name. In some countries, “daily income” is simply after-tax earnings. Others adjust for the number of dependents or fixed obligations like child support, and some consider only what is earned above a basic living allowance.
Read more at the New York Times.