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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.