Resistance from local governments and their employees, as well as the growing involvement of for-profit companies in prison administration, are key obstacles to ending the system of fines and court-related fees that have weighed heavily on them. “disproportionately” on minorities and the poor, a lecture at John Jay College heard Thursday said.
Carousel Bayrd, a member of the Dane County, Wisconsin, Oversight Board, which covers Madison, said even in a liberal jurisdiction like his, there was fierce opposition to attempts to eliminate fees charged to keep young people in prison.
The effort was ultimately successful, but supporters encountered opposition from social workers and county employees who argued that the fees were a way to hold families accountable for their children, while others “feared that if some fines and fees were removed, they would lose their jobs. ,” she said.
Bayrd was speaking on the first day of a conference on Cash Register Justice, examining the proliferation of financial sanctions in the country’s legal systems. The conference, sponsored by John Jay’s Center on Media, Crime and Justice, is the second phase of a program launched last spring to bring together journalists with policymakers, researchers and advocates to promote in-depth reporting on the question.
But another key driver of these practices is the growing involvement of for-profit companies that have contracted with state and local prison authorities for services ranging from food to phone calls, said Bianca Tylek, Executive Director of Worth Rises, a non-profit organization that describes its mission. like the dismantling of the country’s “industrial penitentiary complex”.
Communications providers like Securus can charge up to $ 25 for a 15-minute call between incarcerated people and their families, as they use surveillance technology that prison authorities claim they need to monitor such calls.
Tylek’s group recently successfully campaigned to prevent Securus from acquiring its main competitor, IC Solutions, which would have consolidated its national monopoly on the prison communications industry and resulted in even higher charges.
“They are not really service providers, they are really partners” with penitentiaries, said Tylek, noting that prisons and prisons receive part of the profits from these appeals.
“Criminalize the poor”
Andrew Warren, state attorney for Hillsborough County in Florida, which includes Tampa, said his office had decided to remove most of the fees collected by the courts because they had the effect of “criminalizing” the poor who did not. could not afford to pay them.
While an argument could be made for the use of fines as a crime deterrent, Warren said, the charges are “counterproductive; (they) destabilize families on the fringes of our society (and they) disproportionately affect minorities.
Several speakers said the current system has distorted the administration of justice by subjecting those unable to afford escalating costs with hardships ranging from job loss, broken families and, in some cases even jail terms.
“Justice for those who can afford it is no justice at all,” said Marc A. Levin, vice president of criminal justice policy at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
Levin, one of the founders of the Right on Crime movement, reflects the strong support from left and right to rethink the current system.
Fines and fees, while being a key source of revenue for state governments and municipalities, have had a counterproductive impact that has little to do with protecting public safety, a- we explained at the conference.
“The number of cases where fines are used as punishment has increased astronomically, usually involving drug cases,” said Lisa Foster, co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center.
“Fees are a new phenomenon that started during mass incarceration and exploded during the 2008 recession. They are everywhere.”
She added, “There should be no user fees in the criminal justice system. It is a basic government function and should be paid for by everyone, not just the people in the system. “
Foster, a retired California Superior Court judge, said penalties for those unable to pay are often counterproductive. She cited as an example the practice of suspending driver’s licenses for non-payment of traffic fines, which makes it more difficult for individuals to keep their jobs and thus allows them to pay off their debts.
Although several states such as California, Mississippi, and Virginia have abandoned this practice, it is still used in 44 states. In New York State, for example, two-thirds of all license suspensions are assessed due to unpaid fines.
“Our best guess is that over 11 million Americans have had their licenses suspended,” Foster said.
Sam Brooke, deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said the imposition of fines and fees affects large numbers of Americans, not just “those who live at or below the poverty line.”
Brooke shared the results of a Federal Reserve survey that found about 40% of Americans couldn’t absorb a surprise $ 400 expense. In most of these cash register court cases, the fines and fees accrued amount to much more than that and often force individuals to choose between paying their rent or paying their fine.
Many panelists agreed that fines provide vital support for the costs of the justice system. They pay people’s salaries, public defenders, maintain the justice system, and fund the costs associated with running prisons and prisons. However, they argued that they should be proportional – based on ability to pay – so that a person’s stressed financial situation does not put them in danger of being sent behind bars.
“The idea of a user-funded model is upside down,” Brooke said. “The company is paying for it right now; it’s just that right now it’s coming out of the pockets of the poorest.
Two justice systems
Speaking at an afternoon panel on how monetary practices are enforced by judges and police, Warren said they had indeed created “two systems of justice” in jurisdictions like his, one for the poor and one for the middle class and the rich.
“We were supposed to get rid of 18th century debtor prisons in our country,” he said.
“We did not do it.”
Warren, a Democrat, elected two years ago from a wave of “progressive” prosecutors who have taken office across the country, has led efforts to remove firearms from domestic violence perpetrators, expanded diversion programs prisons and set up a conviction review unit to review cases where innocent people have been imprisoned.
But he said financial woes in local governments have made lawmakers and county officials reluctant to challenge reforms that threaten a primary source of revenue.
“Florida is one of the worst states in the country for fee collection,” he said.
Judge Egan Walker, a district judge for Washoe County, Nevada, pointed to similar challenges when he launched his own campaign, which was ultimately successful, to eliminate some of the fines and fees imposed for the detention of minors.
“We really had to ask ourselves why are we imposing fines and fees on minors and their families,” he said. “What are we trying to accomplish by doing this? “
The conference, supported by Arnold Ventures, ends Friday.
Further reading: The ‘Poverty Trap’: How For-Profit Pre-Trial Services Push Americans Into Debt
Nancy Bilyeau, Andrea Cipriano and Stephen Handelman of TCR contributed to this story.