As Court Fees Rise, The Poor Are Paying The Price

Source: Joseph Shapiro, NPR, May 19, 2014

…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….

….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……