“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.) Further, the base fine of, say, a speeding ticket or even a major criminal conviction is just a small portion of the total cost. There are fines, fees, interest, surcharges, per payment and collection charges, and restitution. Until these debts are paid in full, individuals who have otherwise “done their time” remain under judicial supervision and are subject to court summons, warrants, and even jail stays.
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.
Following the Department of Justice’s scathing report on the misuse of monetary sanctions by the Ferguson Police Department (pdf), national and international media turned their attention to how legal fines and fees can create contemporary debtor’s prisons.
When people are convicted of crimes, we know that they are sentenced to time in jail or prison, to perform community service, and sometimes to undertake drug or alcohol treatment. But they are also routinely sentenced to legal debt. Beyond just fines or restitution, defendants in some jurisdictions are required to pay for costs related to their public defender, DNA collection, jury, court paperwork, room and board in prison, electronic monitoring, probation, even for collection of the debt itself. They are, in essence, charged “pay as you go” fees for their use of the criminal justice system.
The poor are increasingly sent to jail not for crimes, but for failing to pay increased court fees. These charges are often for services that were once free and some are constitutionally required. The threat of “pay or stay in jail” has gone too far. Professor Harris joined Huffpost Live to discuss the impact of monetary sanctions on the poor along with national reporters and advocates.