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May 21, 2014

"Guilty and Charged": NPR investigation of charges and fees imposed on criminal defendants

As detailed in this series of new pieces, National Public Radio has conducted an in-depth investigation of how states charging criminal defendants and convicted offenders a range of fees. The start of this lead piece for the special series, headlined "As Court Fees Rise, The Poor Are Paying The Price," provides this description of the NPR efforts and findings:

In Augusta, Ga., a judge sentenced Tom Barrett to 12 months after he stole a can of beer worth less than $2.  In Ionia, Mich., 19-year-old Kyle Dewitt caught a fish out of season; then a judge sentenced him to three days in jail.

In Grand Rapids, Mich., Stephen Papa, a homeless Iraq War veteran, spent 22 days in jail, not for what he calls his "embarrassing behavior" after he got drunk with friends and climbed into an abandoned building, but because he had only $25 the day he went to court.

The common thread in these cases, and scores more like them, is the jail time wasn't punishment for the crime, but for the failure to pay the increasing fines and fees associated with the criminal justice system.

A yearlong NPR investigation found that the costs of the criminal justice system in the United States are paid increasingly by the defendants and offenders.  It's a practice that causes the poor to face harsher treatment than others who commit identical crimes and can afford to pay. Some judges and politicians fear the trend has gone too far.

A state-by-state survey conducted by NPR found that defendants are charged for many government services that were once free, including those that are constitutionally required.  For example:

  • In at least 43 states and the District of Columbia, defendants can be billed for a public defender.
  • In at least 41 states, inmates can be charged room and board for jail and prison stays.
  • In at least 44 states, offenders can get billed for their own probation and parole supervision.
  • And in all states except Hawaii, and the District of Columbia, there's a fee for the electronic monitoring devices defendants and offenders are ordered to wear.

These fees — which can add up to hundreds or even thousands of dollars — get charged at every step of the system, from the courtroom, to jail, to probation.  Defendants and offenders pay for their own arrest warrants, their court-ordered drug and alcohol-abuse treatment and to have their DNA samples collected.  They are billed when courts need to modernize their computers.  In Washington state, for example, they even get charged a fee for a jury trial — with a 12-person jury costing $250, twice the fee for a six-person jury.

There are already six stories assembled on this topic available here under the special series heading "Guilty and Charged." Particularly valuable for researchers may be this chart reporting the results of NPR's state-by-state survey of common fees charged to defendants.

May 21, 2014 at 11:17 AM | Permalink

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Comments

The "costs of the criminal justice system in the United States are paid increasingly by the defendants and offenders."

And, what is the problem? That is like saying, "the cost of healthcare is increasingly paid by the sick, or the cost of automotive repair is increasingly paid by automobile owners." If you drive drunk, steal stuff, do drugs, etc., YOU should bear the cost of your choices. Not me. If you don't like paying those costs, then you should try behaving yourself.

Posted by: Hmm... | May 21, 2014 11:42:01 AM

I would agree to a certain extent. There are two problems with that perspective: overcriminalization and affect on the poor. With overcriminalization, you have certain (read poor or black) populations being arrested and charged with an amazing array of petty offenses which can lead to huge fines and court costs and jail time as those fines become unpayable. As to the unequal affect on the poor, we see poor people caught in a web of fines and court costs which can be impossible to escape. A traffic ticket can lead to loss of license and jail time, which leads to loss of a job, more fines, interest, supervision fees, more jail time...and on and on. All from a traffic ticket. It's easy to say "behave yourself" when you come from a place where paying a couple hundred dollars for a speeding ticket is doable. For many it is not.

Posted by: AlaJD | May 21, 2014 11:57:11 AM

The reason it is a problem is because we have a Constitutional amendment prohibiting it. This is the point I keep making about Paroline too. If the government can nickle and dime a person then the Excessive Fines clause is a paper tiger. While this article directly relates to the states the principle remains the same. In our society money is power and any distinction between money liberty and physical liberty is not sustainable.

"YOU should bear the cost of your choices. Not me. If you don't like paying those costs, then you should try behaving yourself."

The irony here is delicious. Because of course the criminal is not bearing the cost of his decisions. He's bearing the cost of your decision because you were the one that outlawed the behavior. If outlawing the behavior is so god damn important to YOU then YOU should have no problem coughing up the dough to cover the punishment.

Posted by: Daniel | May 21, 2014 12:04:32 PM

"If outlawing the behavior is so god damn important to YOU then YOU should have no problem coughing up the dough to cover the punishment."

So, if we try to pass along some of the cost of housing murderers to the killers themselves, it is wrong somehow? Crime is public thing. We join a society and agree as a whole here. The vitriol sounds better when the "behavior" looks trivial, less so as a general principle.

As is "any distinction between money liberty and physical liberty is not sustainable" -- so what, the same rules should be applied to loss of liberty and loss of property? We move to the connection between the two to equalization. Why not just make life and property the same thing?

Posted by: Joe | May 21, 2014 1:46:04 PM

I tend to think that, if crime is a public thing, the cost of prosecution of crime should be carried by the public as well. That being said, I don't really have a problem with court costs, I have a problem with a system that incentivizes wanting to bring people through the court system in order to increase those fees. If the defendant didn't bear the weight of the cost of prosecution, prosecutors would be more likely to ask themselves if it was actually worth prosecuting. Jail time (i.e., court appointed counsel) for not having an operator's license would be a good example, but so would Possession of Marijuana, etc. If the cost was more on the state less on the individual, I think the policies would be better (and let's face it, the murderer is never going to bear the cost of the murder prosecution anyway).

Posted by: Erik M | May 21, 2014 6:02:09 PM

I'm curious how states are getting away with this in light of Bearden v. Georgia, which clearly held that imprisonment for inability to pay fines is unconstitutional.

Posted by: tyler | May 21, 2014 6:41:16 PM

Here's what one Judge I know will say for a Possession of Marijuana conviction (I know it verbatim):
"I sentence you to 30 days in jail, of which, 30 will be suspended for a period of one year on condition of general good behavior, 24 hours of community service, completion of (the drug treatment program), and payment of fines and court costs."

They get around it with suspended time and general good behavior. Failure to pay court costs is a violation of the terms of suspended sentence and allow for a revocation hearing. Of course, there are more court costs at the revocation hearing.

Speaking of charging for court appointed lawyers (which I thought every state did), I've been essentially told in no uncertain terms that I must bill the maximum amount for a client's case, even if the case was really simple and I didn't talk to the client until court (say it was a driving on suspended with no discovery and the client never made contact). I could easily handle the case in 10-20 minutes. I had to bill for an hour and 20 minutes instead (the $120).

Posted by: Erik M | May 21, 2014 8:04:56 PM

"So, if we try to pass along some of the cost of housing murderers to the killers themselves, it is wrong somehow?"

Yes it is wrong. The essence of a value is that its valuable and in our society value is primarily measured by money. By demanding a criminal pay costs we are in essence demanding that he values what we value even though by his very actions he has indicated he doesn't share our values. How much is enough? How much piling on is acceptable before it becomes counterproductive? If rehabilitation is a goal how many barriers do we put up between that goal and the person striving for it? What do those barriers prove, anyway, other than the fact his captors are sadists. If locking a man in prison for 20 years doesn't send the message, how is imposing costs adding anything to the message?

The bigger problem, however, is what it actually does to the captors. The essence of a value is that its valuable and if his captors aren't willing to foot the bill then it must not be all that valuable to them. That's hypocrisy. We insist that a criminal pay for a value that he doesn't hold when we ourselves are not willing to pay for it despite claiming to hold it. In the long run that hypocrisy is morally corrupting, as is manifest everywhere today.

"We join a society and agree as a whole here."

No, we are BORN into a society, a decision our parents make and which is forced upon us both by the bonds of nature and the civil law until we are 18. It takes a long time for a man to win his freedom from that conditioning and be able to make a choice to freely join a society. Many people never win that freedom.

"Why not just make life and property the same thing?"

We already DO and only the naive think differently.

Posted by: Daniel | May 21, 2014 9:43:27 PM

well Erik M. the correct response to this!

"Here's what one Judge I know will say for a Possession of Marijuana conviction (I know it verbatim):
"I sentence you to 30 days in jail, of which, 30 will be suspended for a period of one year on condition of general good behavior, 24 hours of community service, completion of (the drug treatment program), and payment of fines and court costs."

They get around it with suspended time and general good behavior. Failure to pay court costs is a violation of the terms of suspended sentence and allow for a revocation hearing. Of course, there are more court costs at the revocation hearing."

Should be Your cooked honour. You can take your sentence and shove it up your ass sidewise. I'll take the 30 days NOW. You can shove the rest. Hell make it 90! or 120!. I refuse to do any of that. NOW!

Posted by: rodsmith | May 22, 2014 1:30:10 AM

I'm with you Daniel. I have to laugh when I hear some idiot spout that bit of bullshit!

"We join a society and agree as a whole here."

Sorry I did not agree to shit. In fact I think the majority of the two-faced criminal retards who now run and control this country should be SHOT!

past time to crash the whole thing and start over.

Posted by: rodsmith | May 22, 2014 1:33:19 AM

as for the cases shown here!

"In Augusta, Ga., a judge sentenced Tom Barrett to 12 months after he stole a can of beer worth less than $2. In Ionia, Mich., 19-year-old Kyle Dewitt caught a fish out of season; then a judge sentenced him to three days in jail.

In Grand Rapids, Mich., Stephen Papa, a homeless Iraq War veteran, spent 22 days in jail, not for what he calls his "embarrassing behavior" after he got drunk with friends and climbed into an abandoned building, but because he had only $25 the day he went to court.

The common thread in these cases, and scores more like them, is the jail time wasn't punishment for the crime, but for the failure to pay the increasing fines and fees associated with the criminal justice system."

They are a perfect example of the REAL THREAT to our society. The gov't fuckup's who ran them. You know the Judge and DA. Those individuals are the real threat in these cases. They plainly wasted 1000 times the funds the people charged did.

Posted by: rodsmith | May 22, 2014 1:35:57 AM

I think the issue boils down to the fact that many folks in pre-trial detention are there for less serious crimes such as drugs, they may be poorer, and usually folks in pre-trial may have a lesser chance of getting a favorable outcome in the long-run at a trial, and less likely to afford and have great console. So court fees have a poorer person end up in a cycle of incarceration, losing employment,etc

Of course a person who commits a more serious crime and costs taxpayers more money for prisons costs may be less likely to foot the bill, which I presume could be a point of this article.

Posted by: Alex | May 22, 2014 4:30:13 AM

rodsmith, if the client said that, it would be 30+10 (max for summary contempt).

Anyway, I just read Bearden v. Georgia. It includes cases of suspended time conditioned on court costs. That being said, all it says is that there is no per se rule and the Judge can only impose jail time for those who fail to make a good faith effort to pay. That being said, I do think Judges I've seen are either unaware of that rule or push very close to the line. It is possible to get relief or extensions for failure to pay court costs, but the presumption is that they will revoke your suspended time.

Posted by: Erik M | May 22, 2014 6:35:02 AM

possible Erik But I'd have no problem informing that gov't fucktard that sooner or later I'm going to get out. Then your two-faced ass and your family and friends are dead. After all at this point I would have nothing to lose. Plus I would consider the sentence an illegal one and would therefore be working to remove myself from it no matter who I had to hurt or kill to do it. Then it would be time to dead with his two-faced ass and the DA.

Posted by: rodsmith | May 22, 2014 5:49:40 PM

As for the summary contempt charge. Sorry if you act like as ASS you don't get to be surprised when someone calls you on it. Not even a gov't stooge! Hell could say ESPECIALLY not a gov't stooge!

After all the fuckup's in the gov't have pretty much give the media a license to do pretty much whatever they want to anyone in the so-called public even when it's assholes in the MEDIA who have SHOVED them into the fucking public.

So they have no friggin right to say shit when someone calls them out on their ACTIONS TAKEN IN THE PUBLIC.

Posted by: rodsmith | May 22, 2014 5:53:11 PM

You can call out their actions in public, I just wouldn't recommend doing it inside the court room. Remember, I said 10 days, but a Judge can try a charge of contempt and impose up to six months without involving a jury according to the Constitution.

Posted by: Erik M | May 22, 2014 9:48:39 PM

Maybe so Erik but I guarantee that sooner or later I'd be out and his/her ass would be DEAD.

Posted by: rodsmith | May 24, 2014 2:24:04 AM

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