Poor People Going to Jail Over Inability to Pay Fines

NPR: As courts impose more and more fees, poor defendants can't keep up
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted May 20, 2014 1:00 PM CDT
Poor People Going to Jail Over Inability to Pay Fines

Accused criminals in Washington state might be surprised to learn that they'll need to shell out $125 in court fees to pay for their own jury, and double that amount if the jury requires 12 people instead of six. It's just one example of many dug up by NPR in a yearlong examination of how cash-strapped courts across the nation are imposing imaginative fines on people, such as room and board for jail stays or a fee for their electronic monitoring devices. The double whammy is that many of these people are so poor that they can't afford the fees and thus end up in prison—not for their original crime but for their inability to pay.

In Benton County, Washington, for instance, a review of a year's worth of jail records revealed that on a typical day, a quarter of the people were locked up because they got behind on fines or fees. Two dueling quotes in the piece:

  • It's justified: "The only reason that the court is in operation and doing business at that point in time is because that defendant has come in and is a user of those services," says the administrator of the Allegan County Circuit Court in Michigan. "They don't necessarily see themselves as a customer because, obviously, they're not choosing to be there. But in reality they are."
  • It's unfair: "If you have resources, a court fine and fee isn't a big deal," says an ACLU attorney. "You can pay that money. You can walk free. But for people who are already poor, the court fine and fee is in essence an additional sentence."
A 1983 Supreme Court decision was supposed to prevent people from getting locked up because they were too poor to pay fines, but NPR finds that judges have plenty of leeway on the issue. Click for the full story. (Read more jail stories.)

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