NPR News Investigations
4:39 pm
Wed May 21, 2014

Court Fees Drive Many Poor Defendants Underground

Originally published on Thu May 22, 2014 10:14 am

The use of fines and fees charged to criminal defendants has exploded. An NPR investigation has found people who can't afford those charges can go to jail for not paying. Hundreds of thousands are hiding from police and the courts.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

Over the last year, NPR surveyed laws in all 50 states and found an explosion in the fines and fees levied against people accused of felonies and low-level misdemeanors. We're going to hear now the next part of our investigation called Guilty and Charged. Most states allow defendants to be billed to cover some of the costs of their jailing, probation, even a public defender. Most of these defendants are poor and, in some places, people who can't pay face arrest.

Our investigation reveals that hundreds of thousands of people across the country can't get jobs or access services because of the fees. As NPR's Joseph Shapiro reports, instead they end up removed from society, hiding from police and the courts.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Look down gritty Montgomery Street on this cold morning in Jersey City, New Jersey, and there are hundreds and hundreds of people in line. The first arrived at midnight, wrapping themselves in blankets. These are people wanted by the police. They're turning themselves in.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. If you have any weapons or anything illegal in your bags, in your pockets, I'm asking you to please dispose of them in this clear plastic bag. You can do it at this time.

SHAPIRO: The men and women in line committed non-violent offenses: Driving violations, parking tickets, some got caught with drugs and drug paraphernalia. When they failed to pay the fines and fees they were charged by the courts, warrants were issued for their arrest.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIRENS)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I've got warrants. So I've come here to lift them so I can start looking for a job. We're going to safely surrender instead of running from the cops. We have hope today. Just for today.

SHAPIRO: They surrender. First, at a church, a safe space.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Give us your right wrist, nice and high. We're going to put a wristband on you.

SHAPIRO: Then they line up across the street to get inside the red-brick Armory. Judges in black robes sit in rows of tight, temporary courtrooms divided by white curtains. And hold court.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Allowing an unlicensed person to drive. You 're going to plead guilty to that. Do you understand that plea bargain? Has it been discussed with you?

SHAPIRO: The judges reset the fines, usually drastically.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Three thousand dollars. They wiped it out clean. They wiped it out clean.

SHAPIRO: And as word gets out, the lines get longer and longer.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: This took a lot of pressure off my back 'cause they lock you up for this stuff. You know, I've been like they locked me up for it before.

SHAPIRO: Over four days in November, more than 4,500 people turned themselves in during the program, Fugitive Safe Surrender, in New Jersey.

Todd Clear, who studies crime policy and is provost of Rutgers University, Newark, says that shows the vast number of people living with fines and fees they can't pay, and how the problem has grown.

TODD CLEAR: Forty years ago, after a court hearing was concluded, it was legally possible for a judge to impose a fee or fine, but it was uncommon.

SHAPIRO: Now fines and fees are common, charged in every state. A fine is a punishment, often an alternative to going to jail. A fee is a charge usually for a court service.

CLEAR: It's the practice that we've engaged in, in this country for 40 years, which is to take the existing penalty structure and inch it up bit-by-bit.

SHAPIRO: The growth of these fees is a result of over 40 years of tough-on-crime policies, the vastly expanded criminal justice system that resulted, and then the need to find money to pay for it. To understand why states began charging defendants, start in 1970 with President Richard Nixon and the War on Crime.

PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: We must declare and win the war against the criminal elements which increasingly threaten our cities, our homes and our lives.

(APPLAUSE)

SHAPIRO: Then came the War on Drugs in the 1980s. In 40 years, the number of people behind bars in the U.S. jumped 700 percent. Jails, prisons, courtrooms, the whole criminal justice system became overcrowded. And the costs kept rising, too. From $6 billion for states in 1980 to more than 67 billion a year now.

At the same time, states struggled with budget deficits. Politicians faced new pressure not to raise taxes. So states started charging user fees to the defendants who came through the criminal justice system. But those fees create a harsher punishment for the poor. Because those costs pile up often to hundreds and even thousands of dollars.

Sociologist Alexes Harris, at the University of Washington, says it makes little sense to try to raise revenue this way, because the people most likely to face arrest are poor.

ALEXES HARRIS: They tend to be people of color, African-Americans and Latinos. They tend to be high school drop-outs. They tend to be people with mental illness, with substance abuse. So these are already very poor and marginalized people in our society. And then we impose these fiscal penalties to them and expect that they make regular payments when, in fact, the vast majority are unable to do so.

SHAPIRO: People with money pay their fines and fees and they're done with the court system. Courts put the poor on payment plans. They might tack on extra fees or even double-digit interest. And as Todd Clear at Rutgers notes: If they fall behind on their payments, there are penalties and sometimes a warrant issued for their arrest.

CLEAR: If you don't pay it, then you are subject to being revoked from probation. And if you get revoked from probation, you go to jail. And it never goes away. That's what happens: The fiscal obligation sort of never goes away.

SHAPIRO: The number of Americans with unpaid fines and fees is massive. Consider that, in 2011, in Philadelphia alone, courts sent bills to more than 320,000 people, roughly one-in-five city residents. The median debt was around $4,500. The growth shows up in U.S. Department of Justice surveys, too: It's asked prison inmates if they owe court-imposed costs, fines and fees. In 1991, 25 percent did. By 2004, two-thirds did.

And since then, NPR found states keep adding more and more fees. Our own survey found that, since the recent recession, 48 states increased criminal and civil court fees, added new ones or both.

Todd Clear says when people fail to pay all these fees, they get trapped in failure.

CLEAR: There are a lot of things you can't do. A lot of jobs you can't apply for. A lot of benefits you can't apply for. If you have a license, driver's license that needs to be renewed, you can't renew it. So what it means is you live your entire life under a cloud. In a very real sense, they drop out of the real society.

SHAPIRO: In NPR's reporting, we came across those people again and again. We found a woman in her 60's who lost her subsidized housing for seniors and became homeless. It was discovered she still owed $500 on a conviction decades before for forging a prescription. We found people who didn't pay court costs and lost their driver's license, but they kept driving sometimes to get to work, to get kids to school until they got caught, went to jail and got assessed thousands of dollars of more fines and fees.

VANESSA TORRES HERNANDEZ: What we hear from people over and over and over again is that they feel constantly trapped. That if they cannot, somehow, out of magic, produce whatever funds the court has demanded that they will be incarcerated.

SHAPIRO: Vanessa Torres Hernandez is an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington. She's the author of a recent report that criticizes the use of fines and fees in that state.

HERNANDEZ: For people who are already living on the fringes of society, who struggle to find employment, who struggle to find housing, who struggle to support their children, the additional burden that's placed by court fines and fees undermines their ability to move on with their lives.

SHAPIRO: But judges say they assess fees to hold lawbreakers accountable as an alternative to sending them to jail.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: All please rise.

JUDGE KATY BUTLER: This is the fine docket. Where we have an opportunity to discuss your situation and the payment of your fines.

SHAPIRO: In Benton County, Washington, District Court Judge Katy Butler says the court gives people multiple chances to pay, and sets fines and fees after talking to a defendant about what they can afford. She says it's when they don't pay, or commit more crimes, that they get in trouble.

BUTLER: They haven't made any good faith effort to try to pay their fines. They've just continued to violate the law. And at some point, you have to say we are going to hold you accountable. Because there's other people who are being responsible and paying and we've set, you know, we've set some minimal fines at $10 a month. That equates to, what, 30 cents a day. Or even $25 equates to 85 cents a day.

SHAPIRO: NPR got a year of data from the Benton County Jail. We looked at inmates who'd gone to court on misdemeanor charges. On a typical day, about 25 percent of them were in jail not for their low-level offense but because they didn't pay the fines and fees that resulted.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Can I help the next person?

SHAPIRO: On this day, Virginia Dickerson pulls out cash at the clerk's window. She's trying to make her way back into her community, after years of being a drug addict. She pays the monthly fee she owes.

VIRGINIA DICKERSON: I paid $35 and the remaining balance is $938.

SHAPIRO: That's on a charge for driving without a license. And that's just one of three cases, misdemeanor and felony, she's paying off. There's 12 percent interest charged on felony court fines here. And that's pushed the total of what Dickerson owes to almost $10,000. She's gone to prison several times for drugs and she's also gone to jail three times because she couldn't pay off her fines.

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...

SHAPIRO: She's been drug free for three years. Since she got out of prison a year ago, she's moved into a treatment house. She found a restaurant owner who was willing to give her a chance and she works as a waitress and cook. She's trying to get back her young daughter. She says she's got her life on track, but if she misses a court payment on the thousands of dollars she owes, she knows she'll be arrested, handcuffed and locked up.

DICKERSON: I don't want to have to worry about going to jail. That is my biggest fear. Everything else, I mean, relapses aren't even a thought to me. This is the only thing that is hindering me.

SHAPIRO: In Washington state, courts bring in hundreds of millions of dollars in yearly revenue. For Benton County, $13 million in 2012. Half of that money goes back to the state. The rest goes back to the county. It more than covers the annual budget of the misdemeanor court and in the felony court, it pays for the six full time employees hired to collect fines and fees.

But back at Fugitive Safe Surrender in New Jersey, that state is going in a different direction and wiping out fines in hopes of helping people get their lives going again.

CAMELIA VALDES: It's not written off. It's not an amnesty program.

SHAPIRO: Camelia Valdes is the prosecutor in Passaic County, New Jersey. A creditor might say, oh, see, crime pays.

VALDES: Well, anytime that we do an initiative that tries to clear warrants, you're going to get some of that feedback. But it's not a pass. It's an opportunity to be accountable on some level where someone can make good, can make some payments. That person is given the opportunity to do that.

SHAPIRO: People like Eddie Restrepo(ph). He says he owed $10,000.

EDDIE RESTREPO: I got my - all my fines went down to $199. Wrote down, all the way down to just that, a measly $199.

SHAPIRO: Restrepo says he got caught twice driving with a suspended license with no registration, with no insurance. Plus, lots of parking tickets. Then there was interest when they went unpaid. Restrepo left the army three years ago. He came home from Iraq, but he couldn't find work. He was homeless. All he had was his car, but he says he didn't have the money to renew his license or to pay the fines when he got caught.

RESTREPO: I was always hiding from the cops. I was always - if I was driving, I had to turn left when they were coming right. You know, I was always trying to hide.

SHAPIRO: When he got in line and surrendered here, he thought maybe it was a trick, that he'd get arrested. Instead, he got his fines reset to a level he can afford and that means Eddie Restrepo can stop hiding. He got a good job several months ago and here's some irony. He's working for parking enforcement. He gives out the kinds of citations and fines that brought him and other people here today. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

CORNISH: You can find all the installments of our series Guilty and Charged along with our full state by state survey at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.