The Price of Justice

The fees and fines the White House says are crippling the criminal-justice system.

Dec. 3, 2015, 3:02 p.m.

“When I was a kid,” Grover Nor­quist said, “my par­ents al­ways said, ‘If you have trouble, if you have a ques­tion, go to the po­lice­man. He’s your friend.’

“I nev­er heard it said about IRS agents,” he con­tin­ued, “and yet we’ve turned, at the loc­al level, a lot of the po­lice force in­to tax col­lect­ors.”

On Thursday, Nor­quist, the founder of Amer­ic­ans for Tax Re­form, spoke at a White House for­um on poverty and in­car­cer­a­tion. The mot­ley crew of speak­ers—Nor­quist, along with At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Lor­etta Lynch, act­or Mi­chael B. Jordan, and Dav­id Si­mon, the cre­at­or of the HBO show The Wire—called for re­form­ing the way the crim­in­al-justice sys­tem doles out mon­et­ary pen­al­ties, which of­ten hit the poor hard­est.

Those pen­al­ties—fines for in­frac­tions, fees for op­er­a­tion­al costs, and bail—render justice un­just, re­form ad­voc­ates say. If someone is un­able to pay, ex­tra pen­al­ties can spir­al in­to debt, ul­ti­mately cost­ing much more than the ini­tial fine. And that per­petu­ates the cycle of poverty.

Nor­quist cited Cali­for­nia’s fees for fall­ing be­hind on park­ing tick­ets, which of­ten res­ult in sus­pen­sion of a driver’s li­cense. On top of a $100 base fine for a sus­pen­ded li­cense, the state tacks on 10 fees, in­clud­ing a state pen­alty as­sess­ment ($100), court op­er­a­tions as­sess­ment ($40), and DNA fund ($50). The real cost of a sus­pen­ded li­cense, then, comes to $490. And if you can’t af­ford that? In the end, the fees for fail­ing to ap­pear or pay on time amount to $815.

“The poor are ac­tu­ally pay­ing more and be­ing pun­ished more in the crim­in­al-justice sys­tem than are those with means,” Samuel Brooke, the deputy leg­al dir­ect­or at the South­ern Poverty Law Cen­ter, told Na­tion­al Journ­al.

Those ex­tra fees can spir­al in­to mount­ing debt. But they can also lead to what Brooke calls “mod­ern debt­ors’ pris­ons.”

There’s an “alarm­ing tend­ency to courts throw­ing up their hands when people aren’t able to pay and say­ing, ‘If you’re not able to pay, then we’re gonna put you in jail,’” he said, ex­plain­ing that each day in jail pays off a por­tion of debt. “This is lock­ing people up simply be­cause of their poverty.”

The time in jail can be “in­cred­ibly destabil­iz­ing,” he ad­ded: “You might have someone who is liv­ing paycheck to paycheck, they are work­ing a min­im­um-wage job, and now they’re go­ing to lose that job be­cause they were caught up with a fine that they owed of $200 that they can’t pay off.”

That per­son, now un­em­ployed, might have a fam­ily re­ly­ing on him or her, and that fam­ily sud­denly doesn’t have a source of in­come. Glenn Mar­tin, the founder of JustLead­er­shipUSA, which ad­voc­ates for halv­ing the pris­on pop­u­la­tion by 2030, told Na­tion­al Journ­al that these fees don’t just pun­ish the of­fend­er.

“When we pun­ish people, we ac­tu­ally pun­ish every­one,” Mar­tin said. “What it does is cre­ate a situ­ation where not only the in­di­vidu­al goes home saddled with these fines and fees, but the en­tire fam­ily now has the bur­den of pay­ing off these fines and fees. So the im­pact is so much broad­er than just the in­di­vidu­al. It’s pun­ish­ing en­tire fam­il­ies.”

The con­ver­sa­tion around crim­in­al-justice re­form has been spurred in part by the re­lease of a damning Justice De­part­ment re­port on the Fer­guson Po­lice De­part­ment earli­er this year. That re­port found, among oth­er sear­ing con­clu­sions, that of­ficers wiel­ded ar­rests and tick­ets as rev­en­ue gen­er­at­ors rather than in ser­vice of pub­lic safety.

The spir­al of fines from small in­frac­tions mired res­id­ents in the Mis­souri town, where an of­ficer shot and killed an un­armed black teen­ager in Au­gust 2014: One wo­man who once parked her car il­leg­ally in 2007 was ar­res­ted twice, spent six days in jail, and paid $550 to a city court as a res­ult of that one of­fense. Though the ori­gin­al tick­et was $151, missed court dates and fine pay­ments—which triggered sep­ar­ate fees—meant that in 2014, she still owed $541.

The White House event—which brought con­ser­vat­ive Nor­quist to the same lectern as White House seni­or ad­viser Valer­ie Jar­rett—il­lus­trated crim­in­al-justice re­form’s ap­peal across ideo­lo­gic­al lines. The Co­ali­tion for Pub­lic Safety, a cam­paign to make the sys­tem “smarter, fairer and more cost ef­fect­ive,” counts among its mem­bers groups who can’t agree on much else: the lib­er­al Cen­ter for Amer­ic­an Pro­gress and the Amer­ic­an Civil Liber­ties Uni­on, along with the con­ser­vat­ive-owned Koch In­dus­tries and Nor­quist’s Amer­ic­ans for Tax Re­form. The is­sue is also gain­ing bi­par­tis­an trac­tion on Cap­it­ol Hill, where a Sen­ate bill that would re­duce man­dat­ory min­im­ums for a slew of drug crimes was co­sponsored by tea-party stal­wart Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Demo­crat­ic Sen. Cory Book­er of New Jer­sey, among oth­ers.

Crim­in­al-justice re­form has be­come a cent­ral piece of Pres­id­ent Obama’s second-term do­mest­ic policy agenda. Just this fall, Obama called on Con­gress to “ban the box” re­quir­ing job seekers to dis­close their crim­in­al back­ground on ap­plic­a­tions and gran­ted early re­lease to more than 6,000 fed­er­al in­mates. In Ju­ly, he be­came the first sit­ting pres­id­ent to vis­it a fed­er­al pris­on, meet­ing with six in­mates at the El Reno fa­cil­ity out­side of Ok­lahoma City. And he’s been blunt in his stance that the crim­in­al-justice sys­tem “re­mains par­tic­u­larly skewed by race and wealth.”

At the White House, Lynch echoed this out­look, call­ing the crim­in­al-justice sys­tem’s fines and fees “the crim­in­al­iz­a­tion of poverty.”

“What is the price of justice?” she asked at Thursday’s event. The er­ror in that ques­tion, she said, “is in think­ing of justice as a com­mod­ity that can be quan­ti­fied rather than a right in­her­ent to all who stand un­der the shel­ter­ing arm of our Con­sti­tu­tion.”

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