Poor People Can Pay Twice After Committing A Crime

May 22, 2014
Originally published on May 22, 2014 4:43 pm

Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We turn now to an unexpected consequence of getting caught up in the justice system. By now, many people know that getting involved in a criminal proceeding can be expensive. But they're probably thinking about attorneys' fees. What you might not know about - unless you've been there - are the other fees that are increasingly being charged to defendants when they go through court or to prison or receive probation or parole.

Fees for things like home detention and probation services, even public defenders are leaving some poor defendants thousands of dollars in debt. A new NPR investigation found an enormous increase in these types of fees across the country. And NPR investigative correspondent Joseph Shapiro is with us now to tell us more. Welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: What kinds of fees are we talking about, and how did this all start?

SHAPIRO: How did I get started on this? I started doing some reporting on plea deals, and I was talking to Stephen Bright, who heads the Southern Center for Human Rights. And he said, you know, really, you should look at this issue of all these fees that pile up on people.

He said, we can have people go through the court; they accept a plea deal to avoid time in jail - and maybe it's on some nonviolent misdemeanor. And they sign the plea deal, but they - and they're glad they haven't gone to jail. But they haven't really been paying attention to all the things that are in this deal. And it might be that they - some provisions, and they have to pay all these fines and fees. And then they can't afford it, they fall behind, and they go to jail anyway.

MARTIN: You go to jail for not paying fines?

SHAPIRO: Yeah. These can add up to hundreds, thousands of dollars. And when people don't pay, they violated probation. You violate probation, a warrant's out for your arrest. You can go back to jail. We got the jail records for one county in Washington state, Benton County, Washington. On a typical day, 25 percent of the people who are in the county jail come through on a misdemeanor court. Twenty-five percent of those people were there simply because they had not paid fines and fees.

MARTIN: Your investigation found that defendants are even paying for government services that are constitutionally required, like having a public defender. I mean, I think anybody who's watched a cop show, a police procedural, has seen the Miranda warning. You know, you have the right to counsel, and if you can't afford counsel, one will be appointed for you. So how is it possible that people could be charged for that?

SHAPIRO: So they say, if you can't afford one, one will be provided for you. But you can be charged later. And we did a state-by-state survey. We found 43 states plus the District of Columbia allow a defendant to be charged for a public defender. And sometimes it's just an upfront administrative fee; $10 in New Mexico, up to $400 in Arkansas.

But sometimes it's a debt that gets charged for more. And the courts have justified this by saying, look, even poor people can afford something. Maybe it's that small administrative fee. Or maybe they'll get a good job tomorrow, or they'll win the lottery. And you can charge them, and they'll owe you for that later.

But what we found out when we did this investigation is that sometimes people just say, OK, I won't use a lawyer. Then they get in trouble. They go into court, and they don't have a lawyer. Or they just carry this debt forever.

MARTIN: You profiled a number of people with different situations, and I want to call attention to the case of Tom Barrett. And this is a story that'll be in a future piece in your story. But let's hear a little bit, and then we'll talk about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TOM BARRETT: I had to wear this monitor either for six months, pay $12 a day for six months, or spend 12 months in jail for stealing one can of beer. That doesn't seem like justice to me. I mean, I should not have taken that beer. I was dead wrong. But to spend 12 months in jail for stealing one can of beer, it just didn't - didn't seem right.

MARTIN: That doesn't seem right. So how did the 12 months in jail come about?

SHAPIRO: So in this case he got caught, he - shoplifting. He took a can of beer worth less than 2 bucks. And the judge says, all right, that's a minor offense. You can be released, but as a condition, you have to wear an electronic monitoring bracelet. Well, those things are expensive. And he had to pay $12 a day. He had to get a landline phone. He had to pay a private probation agency to supervise him. It was over $400 a month. This guy had been homeless. He just moved into subsidized housing. He was paying $25 a month for his apartment, and he had no income other than food stamps. So $12 a day, he couldn't afford it.

MARTIN: So did he go back to jail because...

SHAPIRO: He went back to...

MARTIN: ...He couldn't pay...

SHAPIRO: Right. Right.

MARTIN: ...The fee?

SHAPIRO: He wasn't paying the fee, and they said, all right, that's a violation of your probation. So they put him in jail. He was actually there for two months. His sponsor in Alcoholics Anonymous helped him get out. He got out. He had the electronic monitor. He tried to pay, and he fell behind again. And he was faced with going back to jail.

MARTIN: Another person you spoke with is Virginia Dickerson, who is a recovering drug addict who was worried that she would go back to jail because of her fees. And this is what she told you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

VIRGINIA DICKERSON: I made the choice to break the law, but they don't make it any easier for anyone who's trying to rehabilitate themselves to get above water. And I'm doing everything that I can, and I just - I mean, relapses aren't even a thought to me. This is the only thing that is hindering me.

MARTIN: I think the idea that people go to jail for not paying debts, it sounds to me like debtors' prison to many people. And I'm wondering if the jurisdictions where these fines are being imposed, do they understand how big the fines are? And do they understand the impact that they have on people who are already, in some cases, in dire financial circumstances?

SHAPIRO: Well, I think in our series we argue they don't understand how much this adds up. States, as their criminal justice system has expanded, they needed money to run it. And states are under pressure not to raise taxes and to keep the budgets balanced. So they passed on more and more user fees to people like Virginia Dickerson. She was in jail. She's had a long history of drug abuse, but she's been sober now for over three years. She's got her life back on track. But she came out of prison with $10,000 in debt. And...

MARTIN: For what? She came out of - how did she have debt being in prison? She didn't pay to be in prison.

SHAPIRO: Her fines and fees. It can be thousands of dollars on one charge. Hers added up to $10,000, plus in Washington state, they add 12 percent interest onto those fines and fees that you owe. She was in prison. She wasn't working. Meanwhile, her debt kept going up and up and up. So when she came out, she had this incredible burden; $10,000 that she had to pay off.

And she's done very well now. She's - just this week, she started a second job. She works in a restaurant. She's got two restaurant jobs. She's trying to pay off the money that she still owes. She's living in a treatment house. She's doing well. But the thing that we just heard on that tape, that she's most worried about, it's not whether she'll have a relapse. It's, can she pay these fines and fees, all this money she owes because if she doesn't, she knows she can be arrested and hauled back to jail.

MARTIN: Some people might argue two points hearing that and might have a different reaction. They might argue, one, the system works - if she is afraid of going back to jail for whatever reason, then that is a modification of her behavior. That is an incentive for her to not reoffend - thing one. And some people also might argue that people have to pay for other government services, why shouldn't they pay for this one?

SHAPIRO: We do expect people to be punished, and fines and fees can be an alternative to sending someone to jail. So that can be a good thing, right? But the issue is, are they so disproportionate, have we created a sort of an unequal system of justice?

If you have money, you can pay your fine and fee. You don't get the 12 percent interest. You pay, and it's done. But for someone who doesn't have a job, who's just coming out of prison, $10,000 is crushing. And we also want people to be rehabilitated, to get back on track, to get jobs, to be taxpaying citizens. And if they're constantly in fear of falling behind on their payments and going back to jail, then that's counterproductive.

MARTIN: Presumably, you talked to public officials who were responsible for imposing these systems here. So what are - public officials say?

SHAPIRO: We got some mixed reaction. Some judges said, look, the state legislature is out of touch. They don't know the economic situation that people are facing. We're tired of being forced to charge these fees because it's mandated by the state. Some judges said, look, we can only take your time or your money, and we need this as a punishment.

But in some places now, just in the last few months, there's been some action in state legislatures to try to change this. Colorado just this month passed a law telling municipal judges they can't send someone to jail just because they don't have the money to pay court fees.

MARTIN: Joseph Shapiro is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team. He was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Joe, thanks so much.

SHAPIRO: Thank you. It's always good to be here.

MARTIN: To hear all the stories from NPR's Guilty And Charged series, just go to npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.