The cost of crim­i­nal­is­ing poverty

Pakistan Observer - - OPINION - Alexes Har­ris The writer is an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of so­ci­ol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Wash­ing­ton.

AMER­I­CANS of­ten pay for their crimes twice — first with a prison sen­tence, then with a life­time of debt many will never be able to es­cape. Last year’s scathing Depart­ment of Justice re­port on Fer­gu­son, drew na­tional at­ten­tion to shame­ful prac­tices to ex­tract rev­enue from our poor­est cit­i­zens through in­or­di­nate fines for mi­nor of­fences such as traf­fic vi­o­la­tions. But much less at­ten­tion has been paid to fines and fees forced on those who are con­victed of felonies, which plays a sim­i­larly de­struc­tive role in our so­ci­ety and erodes con­fi­dence in our justice system.

As a re­sult of mass con­vic­tion and in­car­cer­a­tion over the past 20 years, the US is in­creas­ingly turn­ing to law vi­o­la­tors to pay be­yond their sen­tences. This money funds not only our justice system, but also non-justice re­lated func­tions like sup­port­ing pub­licly fi­nanced po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns. Adult felony de­fen­dants in Wash­ing­ton state, for ex­am­ple, are rou­tinely charged $600 for a con­vic­tion ($500 for a penalty as­sess­ment and, in many cir­cum­stances, another $100 for a DNA ex­trac­tion). Ad­di­tional dis­cre­tionary fees, in­clud­ing $450 for the use of a pub­lic de­fender and $200 for court costs, mean that de­fen­dants state-wide can be charged on av­er­age $1,000 per felony con­vic­tion in ad­di­tion to other sen­tences such as jail, com­mu­nity ser­vice and su­per­vi­sion.

Those who are poor and un­able to fully pay their court bill are then charged 12% in­ter­est (a stag­ger­ing rate akin to those charged by pay­day lenders), a $100 an­nual col­lec­tion sur­charge and even per-pay­ment “con­ve­nience” fees. These prac­tices leave many sad­dled with debt and of­ten un­able to piece their lives back to­gether, long af­ter they have served their time.

Court of­fi­cials in Wash­ing­ton em­ployed pa­ter­nal­is­tic mon­i­tor­ing mech­a­nisms and judg­ment prac­tices, ac­cord­ing to court clerks and pros­e­cu­tors. Some re­quired de­fen­dants to stay in con­stant com­mu­ni­ca­tion re­gard­ing their hous­ing and em­ploy­ment. In ad­di­tion, strict due dates for pay­ments left debtors at the mercy of court of­fi­cials who had dis­cre­tion to de­cide if debtors were in or out of com­pli­ance. If peo­ple missed pay­ments, judges is­sued war­rants and sheriffs picked up debtors who were of­ten home­less and found sleeping in parks. Upon pay­ment debtors were told to carry their pay­ment re­ceipts with them at all times just in case po­lice stopped them for non-pay­ment re­lated war­rants.

The fact that a man in Clark County, Wash­ing­ton who was suf­fer­ing from stage four can­cer, another who was home­less, and oth­ers with sig­nif­i­cant phys­i­cal and men­tal lim­i­ta­tions were found by judges to have the abil­ity to make pay­ments on fines and fees makes it hard to see this as­pect of the justice system as any­thing but pun­ish­ment sim­ply for be­ing poor. When I asked how a home­less de­fen­dant could pos­si­bly find the means for court-or­dered debt pay­ment, I was told “there’s good money to be made in stand­ing along the street cor­ner and ask­ing.”

Such un­fair­ness un­der­mines the ba­sic tenets of justice in Amer­ica. But we do not need to tol­er­ate the sta­tus quo. There are many com­mon-sense pol­icy re­forms we can im­ple­ment that would help make our justice sys­tems fairer and more equitable. To start, states and lo­cal ju­ris­dic­tions should as­sess their system of fines and fees in or­der to en­sure that the poor are no longer fac­ing per­ma­nent pun­ish­ment, but in­stead can serve at­tain­able sen­tences, atone for their vi­o­la­tions of the law, and move for­ward with their lives. Cer­tainly, states should not charge in­ter­est on fis­cal penal­ties. It makes no sense for peo­ple whom the court deems in­di­gent – and who have qual­i­fied for pub­lic de­fend­ers — to be forced to pay fines and fees in ad­di­tion to their sen­tences.

In pro­vid­ing safe­guards for the poor in our court­rooms, states can cre­ate more ef­fi­cient, ef­fec­tive and eth­i­cal sys­tems of justice. States can also de­crease the need for ex­pen­sive fi­nan­cial col­lec­tions pro­grams and cut the cost of in­car­cer­at­ing the poor—which nei­ther states nor lo­cal ju­ris­dic­tions can af­ford. Most crit­i­cally, such pol­icy changes would help give mil­lions of Amer­i­cans what they are owed af­ter serv­ing their time: a sec­ond chance.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Pakistan

© PressReader. All rights reserved.