The criminalization of poverty

A few months ago I got a speeding ticket while driving through a southern state. (I’ll just leave it at that for now.) I was definitely speeding, so the stop didn’t bother me. Neither did the specific fine for speeding — $62. What I found appalling were the add-ons. There was a court fee, a processing fee, some sort of vague “assessment,” and a few others charges I don’t recall. In the end, the ticket cost me over $250. The extras amounted to several times the cost of the initial infraction. I hadn’t had a speeding ticket in over five years. But the last time I got one, I was only asked to pay the cost of the fine for the infraction itself. So this is a new thing.

I also didn’t have my insurance card with me. I have insurance, but I had just leased a new car, and had forgotten to transfer the card into the glove compartment. I was able to avoid the fine for driving without proof of insurance by faxing a copy of my card a few day later. But if I hadn’t had insurance, my fine would have topped $500. This is happening everywhere. In California, running a red light will cost you $549 — $100 for the fraction, plus $449 in added fines, fees, and assessments unrelated to the infraction itself.

I don’t bring this up to portray myself as the victim of some grave injustice. I was speeding, and I can handle the fine. But it occurred to me at the time that $250 would have been enough to put a lot of people in dire financial straits, particularly in the fairly low-income area through which I was driving. If lawmakers want to get people to slow down by jacking up the fines for speeding, that’s one thing. Go ahead, take a vote, and make yourself accountable to your constituents. But these extra fines, fees, and assessments are being added on the sly. And they have nothing to do with highway safety.

That ticket came to mind again when I saw this well-reported NPR series on petty crime and poverty.

In Augusta, Ga., a judge sentenced Tom Barrett to 12 months after he stole a can of beer worth less than $2.

In Ionia, Mich., 19-year-old Kyle Dewitt caught a fish out of season; then a judge sentenced him to three days in jail.

In Grand Rapids, Mich., Stephen Papa, a homeless Iraq War veteran, spent 22 days in jail, not for what he calls his “embarrassing behavior” after he got drunk with friends and climbed into an abandoned building, but because he had only $25 the day he went to court.

The common thread in these cases, and scores more like them, is the jail time wasn’t punishment for the crime, but for the failure to pay the increasing fines and fees associated with the criminal justice system.

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.

NPR found that in the vast majority of America, defendants can be charged for a public defender, for their own parole and probation, the cost of a jury trial, and their stay in a jail cell. Some jurisdictions have even found ways to charge people “booking fees” after an arrest, even if the arrest never results in a criminal charge, a policy recently upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. My favorite example of this nonsense, though it isn’t in the NPR report, is crime labs. Believe it or not, in some jurisdictions, crime labs are paid fees only if their analysis leads to a conviction. (The fees are then assessed to defendants.) Think about the incentives at work there.

Failure to pay these fines results in — you guessed it — more fines, plus interest. If the debt is sent to a collection agency, those fees get tacked on, too. Ultimately, inability to pay the fines can land you in a jail cell. Which is why we’re now seeing what are effectively debtors’ prisons, even though the concept is technically illegal.

With driving infractions, a failure to pay fines can also result in a suspension of your license. In areas of the country where a car is really the only way to get to your job, to the doctor, or to pick up your kids, many low-income people have no choice but to continue driving without a license, an offense that can also land them in jail. From the NPR report:

Other examples included people who didn’t pay court costs and lost their driver’s license, but they kept driving — to get to work, to get kids to school — until they were caught, went to jail and were assessed thousands of dollars in more fines and fees.

The result is that people face arrest and go underground to avoid police. But this means they cut themselves off from job opportunities, welfare benefits or other programs that could get them on their feet.

“There are a lot of things you can’t do. A lot of jobs you can’t apply for,” says Todd Clear, who studies crime policy and is provost of Rutgers University, Newark. “Lots of benefits you can’t apply for. If you have a license, a 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.”

I wrote earlier this year about how the problem gets compounded when local governments become dependent on the revenue from petty infractions, and become tempted to start rigging the game to generate more offenders, “to the point where several cities have been caught shortening yellow lights to hand out more tickets, a practice that makes intersections significantly more dangerous.”

Some states also now add yet more fees if you want to challenge a ticket in court. In some states, the fines only apply if you lose, but they’re exorbitant enough to provide a healthy disincentive, even for innocent drivers. In 2011, for example, Massachusetts’ highest court upheld the state’s $275 fee to appeal traffic tickets as low as $15. In some places it’s even worse: The fees apply even if you win. Add in the time it takes to go to court to fight a ticket, and the cost of proving your innocence exceeds the cost of paying the fine.

My fellow libertarians and I are often criticized for our opposition to policies like primary seat belt laws, helmet laws, aggressive enforcement of jaywalking laws, or nuisance laws, such as carrying an open container in public. The criticism is usually that these are petty concerns, and people who spend time opposing them are out of touch with the real world. But these sorts of laws give police more excuses to make pretext stops when profiling for drug couriers. Once they have you, they can take your cash, car, jewelry or other possessions based only on the flimsiest evidence that it might be connected to drugs. They’re opportunities for harassment. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that even a crime as petty as a seat belt violation is justification for an arrest — and all of the life disruptions that come with a trip to jail. (Don’t forget that no matter what the offense, a trip to jail can also include a strip search.) Heavy enforcement of these sorts of crimes can breed distrust between police and the communities they serve, and creates more interactions that carry the risk of escalation.

But even assuming that all of these stops, fines, and citations are always legitimate, they’re always going to have a disproportionate effect on the poor, because the poor are the people who can least afford to pay them.

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."
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Radley Balko · May 23