NPR puts America to shame with report on court fees and poor defendants, by @DavidOAtkins

NPR puts America to shame with report on court fees and poor defendants

by David Atkins

NPR programming gets a lot of flack from progressive activists for mealy-mouthed centrism on many issues. But this report yesterday on the barbarity of court "fees" for poor defendants was really top-notch work. Infuriating and heartbreaking. Here's a taste:
A yearlong NPR investigation found that the costs of the criminal justice system in the United States are paid increasingly by the defendants and offenders. It's a practice that causes the poor to face harsher treatment than others who commit identical crimes and can afford to pay. Some judges and politicians fear the trend has gone too far.

A state-by-state survey conducted by NPR found that defendants are charged for many government services that were once free, including those that are constitutionally required. For example:

In at least 43 states and the District of Columbia, defendants can be billed for a public defender.
In at least 41 states, inmates can be charged room and board for jail and prison stays.
In at least 44 states, offenders can get billed for their own probation and parole supervision.
And in all states except Hawaii, and the District of Columbia, there's a fee for the electronic monitoring devices defendants and offenders are ordered to wear.
These fees — which can add up to hundreds or even thousands of dollars — get charged at every step of the system, from the courtroom, to jail, to probation. Defendants and offenders pay for their own arrest warrants, their court-ordered drug and alcohol-abuse treatment and to have their DNA samples collected. They are billed when courts need to modernize their computers. In Washington state, for example, they even get charged a fee for a jury trial — with a 12-person jury costing $250, twice the fee for a six-person jury.


Courts usually offer alternatives to paying fees, like doing community service. But sometimes there's a cost with that, too. Jayne Fuentes, in Benton County, Wash., went on the county work crew to pay off her fines — only there was a $5-a-day charge, which she had to borrow from her daughter.


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.

Virginia Dickerson, of Richland, Wash., has been drug-free for more than three years and out of jail for over a year. She's living in a treatment house and working as a waitress and cook. On the day last fall when NPR reporters met her, Dickerson was at the courthouse trying to get a summary of how much she owed in fines, fees and interest. The total: almost $10,000.

"I don't want to have to worry about going to jail. And that is my biggest fear," she says. "Relapses aren't even a thought to me. This is the only thing that is hindering me."
Go read the whole thing.

Something wicked happened to this country around the late 1970s. Nearly every negative trend from rising inequality to wage stagnation to the "war on crime" to the "war on drugs" to modern union busting to deregulation fever started then.

We're still paying the price as a country for the sins of a bunch of cranky, prejudiced jerks with a perverse since of cosmic justice, who still can't seem to get over the 1960s and are desperately trying to pull the ladder up behind themselves after growing up in the cushy economy the New Deal built. Collectively, the people who voted for and encouraged all these trends are some of the worst people in the world. History will not be kind to them.