Resistance from local governments and their employees—along with the growing involvement of for-profit corporations in prison administration—are key barriers to ending the system of justice-related fines and fees that has “disproportionately” burdened minorities and poor people, a conference at John Jay College heard Thursday.
Carousel Bayrd, a member of the Dane County (Wisconsin) Board of Supervisors, which covers Madison, said that even in a liberal jurisdiction like hers, there was fierce opposition to attempts to eliminate fees charged for keeping young people in detention.
The effort was ultimately successful, but supporters faced opposition from social workers and county employees who argued that the fees were a way to make families take responsibility for their children, while others “worried that if certain fines and fees disappeared, 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 penalties in the nation’s justice 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 journalists together with policymakers, researchers and advocates to promote in-depth reporting on the issue.
But another key driver of the practices is the growing involvement of for-profit corporations who have contracted with state and local corrections authorities for services ranging from food to phone calls, said Bianca Tylek, executive director of Worth Rises, a nonprofit which describes its mission as dismantling the nation’s “Prison Industrial Complex.”
Communications providers such as Securus are able to charge as much as $25 for a 15-minute call between incarcerated individuals and their families because they employ surveillance technology that corrections authorities claim to need to monitor such calls.
Tylek’s group recently successfully campaigned to block Securus from acquiring its major competitor, IC Solutions, which would have cemented its national monopoly of the prison communications business and led to even higher charges.
“These aren’t really service providers, they are really partners” with corrections institutions, said Tylek, noting that prisons and jails receive a portion of the profits from those calls.
‘Criminalizing the Poor’
Andrew Warren, State Attorney for Florida’s Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa, said his office had decided to scrap most of the fees levied by courts because they resulted in “criminalizing” poor people who couldn’t afford to pay them,.
While an argument could be made for the use of fines as a deterrence against crime, Warren said, fees are “counterproductive; (they) destabilize the 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 saddling those who are unable to pay escalating costs with hardships ranging from lost employment, broken families and in some cases even jail terms.
“Justice for only those who can afford it isn’t 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 both the left and right for rethinking the current system.
Fines and fees, while providing a key source of revenue for state and municipal governments, have had a counterproductive impact that has little to do with protecting public safety, the conference was told.
“The number of cases where fines are used as punishment has grown astronomically, typically involving drug cases,” said Lisa Foster, Co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center.
“Fees are a new phenomenon that began 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 core government function and should be paid for by everyone, not just people in the system.”
Foster, a retired California Superior Court judge, said punishments to individuals unable to pay are often counter-productive. She cited as an example the practice of suspending driver’s licenses for nonpayment of traffic fines, making it harder for individuals to keep their jobs and thereby enable them to pay their debts.
Although several states like California, Mississippi and Virginia, have scrapped the practice, it is still in use in 44 states. In New York State, for example, two-thirds of all license suspensions are assessed because of unpaid fines.
“Our best estimate 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 that the imposition of fines and fees affect a large number of Americans, not just “those who are living at or below the poverty line.”
Brooke shared results from a Federal Reserve survey that found about 40 percent of Americans couldn’t absorb a surprise $400 expense. In most of these Cash Register Justice cases, the fines and fees accumulated amount to much more than that, and often forced individuals into a choice between paying their rent or paying their fine.
Many of the panelists agreed that fines provide a vital support for the costs of the court system. They pay for people’s salaries, public defenders, court system upkeep, and fund associated costs of running prisons and jails. However, they argued that they should be proportional—based on ability to pay—so that a person’s stressed financial status wouldn’t put him or her in danger of being sent behind bars.
“The idea of a user-funded model is backwards,” Brooke said. “Society is paying for this right now; it’s just that right now, it’s coming out of the pockets of the poorest.”
Two Systems of Justice
Speaking at an afternoon panel on how monetary practices are enforced by judges and police, Warren said they have created in effect “two systems of justice” in jurisdictions like his—one for the poor, and the other for the middle-class and wealthy.
“We were supposed to have gotten rid of debtors’ prisons in the 18th century in our country,” he said.
Warren, a Democrat, elected two years ago in the wave of “progressive” prosecutors who swept into office around the country, has spearheaded efforts to remove guns from domestic violence offenders, expanded prison diversion programs, and established a conviction review unit to re-examine cases where innocent people have been imprisoned.
But he said local governments’ financial problems have made legislators and county officials reluctant to challenge reforms that threaten a core source of revenue.
“Florida one of the worst states in the country when it comes to levying fees,” he said.
Judge Egan Walker, district judge of Washoe County, Nevada, reported similar challenges when he began his own ultimately successful campaign to eliminate some of the fines and fees assessed for juvenile detention.
“We really had to ask why are we imposing fines and fees on juveniles and their families,” he said. “What are we trying to accomplish in doing this?”
The conference, supported by Arnold Ventures, ends Friday.
Additional Reading: The ‘Poverty Trap’: How For-Profit Pretrial Services Drive Americans into Debt
TCR’s Nancy Bilyeau, Andrea Cipriano and Stephen Handelman contributed to this story.