Lawmakers should reduce court fines and other means of collecting criminal justice debt from the poor and reevaluate the judicial process that lands individuals in prison “simply because they are unable to pay their debts,” according to a study forthcoming in the Maryland Law Review.
For instance, courts could eliminate reimbursement charges for public defenders if the individual cannot afford to pay them, waive or reduce court fees as needed, establish a payment plan or arrange payment via community service, writes Neil Sobol, associate professor at Texas A&M University School of Law in the study entitled “Charging the Poor: Criminal Justice Debts & Modern-Day Debtors' Prisons.“
“The same concerns that prompted calls to end debtors' prisons in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries have returned as indigent defendants are unable to pay criminal justice debts,” he writes. “The monetary charges imposed upon defendants are often unrelated to the alleged crimes and unfairly discriminate against the poor and minorities.”
Debtors' prisons have reemerged in recent years as a result of rising criminal justice debt stemming from a defendant's inability to pay fees for traffic violations and other misdemeanors, victim restitution charges and sentencing fees, among other charges, Sobol writes. The collection fees and the interest that keeps accruing are trapping some defendants in an “endless cycle of debt.”
Other recommendations include allowing people to pay based on earning levels and establishing training programs for defendants and court personnel.
Read the study here.