Cities Jailing Poor Defendants Who Can’t Pay Fines

Inside Subprime: Jan 14, 2018

By Lindsay Frankel

In an effort to remedy budget insufficiencies, more states and localities are increasing court fees. In a survey conducted in conjunction with Brennan Center for Justice and the National Center for State Courts, National Public Radio found that 48 states saw an increase in justice system fees between 2010 and 2014. The poorest defendants are suffering as a result, spending time in jail because they can’t afford to pay their fines.

That’s what happened to Jamie Tillman in Corinth, Mississippi. After authorities found her asleep in a library, she was arrested on a public drunk charge and was ordered to pay $100 or spend 30 days in jail. Tillman was broke and didn’t have anywhere to turn. She found that most of the other women in Alcorn County Jail were there for the same reason – they couldn’t come up with the cash for their release. “I thought, because we’re poor, because we’re of a lower class, we aren’t allowed real freedom,” Tillman recalled. “And it was the worst feeling in the world.”

Criminal justice debt widens the disparity between poor defendants and those of means, prolonging poverty for those who can’t pay the initial fee. Even minor traffic violations carry imposed fees. In most states, public defender fees can result in defendants waiving their right to an attorney, creating a critical disadvantage for the poor. And in 30 states, people who owe money to the court aren’t able to vote until their debts are paid. Drivers licenses are also suspended in most states for defendants who owe money, which can make it impossible for indigent individuals to get to work and earn more income. Much like borrowing from a predatory lender, owing money to the court can perpetuate a cycle of poverty.

Cities continue to jail defendants who can’t pay their fines, despite that the practice was ruled unconstitutional during decades-old Supreme Court cases. “Precedent is one thing,” said Alec Karakatsanis, executive director of Washington-based nonprofit Civil Rights Corps. “The way a law is written is one thing. The way a law is actually experienced by poor people and people of color is another.”

While there isn’t a current bill to address the problem, certain jurisdictions are working on alternatives, while lawsuits brought against offending courts work to free poor defendants. Recently, organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, the A.C.L.U., and Civil Rights Corps have brought class-action lawsuits against local courts for violating previous Supreme Court rulings. Most cases settle and defendants are let go without needing to pay a fine, but it can be difficult to locate courts in violation.

In some jurisdictions, there has been a push for alternatives to fines and fees. For example, the newly elected district attorney for Durham County, North Carolina campaigned for the use of citations in misdemeanor cases. Satana Deberry’s intent is to keep more people out of court. And in Chicago, defendants who utilize diversion programs as an alternative to serving time are not charged fees. In Tampa and Jacksonville, Florida, state attorneys have established programs to give back driving privileges to those in debt to the court.

Without action from Congress, prosecutors will be instrumental in curtailing the cycle of poverty that the criminal justice system creates, and should advocate for the use of a sliding scale when assessing fines and fees. They should also push to end the practices of suspending driver’s licenses and fining children. Furthermore, jurisdictions need to find economic alternatives so that courts are funded justly and not paid for by the most impoverished citizens.

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