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'As Court Fees Rise, The Poor Are Paying The Price'

May 22, 2014 - Ben Klein
"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."

Findings of this investigation include:

-Defendants are charged for a long list of government services that were once free — including ones that are constitutionally required.

-Impoverished people sometimes go to jail when they fall behind paying these fees.

-Since 2010, 48 states have increased criminal and civil court fees.

-Many courts are struggling to interpret a 1983 Supreme Court ruling protecting defendants from going to jail because they are too poor to pay their fines.

-Technology, such as electronic monitors, aimed at helping defendants avoid jail time is available only to those who can afford to pay for it.

 
 

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