She’s the lead plaintiff in a voting rights case aimed at preventing the state of Alabama from “barring any ex-offenders from voting on the basis of their past felony convictions — or their inability to pay ‘any legal financial obligations’ as a result of their incarceration.” Alabama is one of 30 states that restrict the voting rights of those who owe debts from their involvement in the criminal justice system. An estimated 10 million Americans owe $50 billion in such debt.
Since 2010, 48 states have increased criminal and court fees. In most states, individuals convicted of traffic offenses, misdemeanors and felonies can be charged for government services that used to be free. They can be billed for a public defender’s services, even if they’re indigent (Florida); they can be charged when booked into jail (Washington); charged a hotel-like nightly fee during their incarceration (Michigan); billed for violating parole or probation (Oregon); for the costs of their parole or probation (New York); and for monitoring technology such as electronic ankle bracelets, ignition locks or GPS monitoring. In some states, parents can be billed for every night their minor child is in juvenile detention, or for medical treatment or counseling their child receives (California).
Each state has its own setup: Fees and surcharges fund elections (Arizona) and transportation (Delaware), among other things. States charge fees to fund building and operating prisons (Arizona); courtroom security (California); and salaries of judges and prosecutors (Mississippi).
The resulting debt impedes the ability of people with criminal convictions to reintegrate into society after a period of incarceration, and subjects them to further sanctions such as civil judgments, liens, wage garnishment and tax interception. Despite a Supreme Court ruling to the contrary (Bearden v. Georgia), some states still lock people up for “willful nonpayment.”
Withholding voting rights because of debt tells those with a criminal history: You don’t get a say. It means that, after having otherwise paid their debt to society, individuals with previous convictions are cut off from civic engagement. And when regaining this right is tied to paying — in full — the frequently onerous debt that accompanies a conviction, voting restrictions hit low-income communities and communities of color hardest.
Thompson’s home state of Alabama is one of 17 states that prohibit individuals from voting until their legal financial obligations are paid in full, as Alexes Harris explains in “A Pound of Flesh: Monetary Sanctions as Punishment for the Poor.” Another 13 states grant provisional voting rights conditioned upon making timely payments. In Colorado, for example, failing to pay court-imposed costs or the mandatory monthly $50 probation fee is cause to extend or revoke probation — meaning, effectively, that those who can’t pay court costs can have their probation extended, and their voting rights revoked, for an indefinite period of time. In Washington, those with felony convictions can vote unless they fail to make three or more payments in a year, after which the right to vote can be revoked. Harris explains that, in this way, “legal debt is a barrier to full societal integration, and it looms especially large with respect to the loss of voting rights among those with a felony conviction and reincarceration for nonpayment of LFOs.”
How did we get here? As jails and prisons have grown to incarcerate a greater percentage of our citizenry than any other country, the government has shifted costs onto individuals caught up in the criminal justice system.
Custodial sentences demand time, which we all have; but monetary sanctions demand funds that not everyone does. When hefty fees are meted out, the result is a two-tier justice system. One for people with criminal convictions who are financially better off, who can pay the fees and move on with their lives, and one for Americans who can’t pay because they don’t have the money.
We know from savings research that 60 percent of Americans say they wouldn’t be able to come up with $500 in an emergency if they had to. Nationally, according to Harris, “people convicted of felonies tend to be financially worse off before arrest and conviction than those not connected to the criminal justice system.” And a recent report found that prison leaves people and their families saddled with more than $13,000 in court-related debt. The burden of the debt becomes a permanent punishment. As long as people owe money, they can remain under court supervision for decades.
The Justice Department’s Ferguson Report — issued after Michael Brown, a young, unarmed African American man, was shot and killed by the police — underscored this troubling phenomenon. The report revealed that Ferguson, Mo., officials aggressively raised revenue by fining local residents. In 2013, the municipal court in Ferguson, a city of just over 21,000 people, issued 32,975 arrest warrants for nonviolent offenses, making fines that municipality’s second largest source of revenue for that year.
In response, unlikely political bedfellows are questioning the wisdom of self-funding government systems through a form of unscrutinized, de facto taxation on the people least able to pay. The nation’s two national court leadership associations have launched a national task force to examine the effect of fines, fees and bail on disadvantaged communities. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch has asked, “What is the price of justice?” The Justice Department has issued a “Dear Colleague” letter to spur a new approach to assessing monetary penalties. Many states and counties are passing reforms.
To be sure, those who break the law should repay their debt to society. But they shouldn’t have to keep repaying it for the rest of their lives, simply because they’re poor. And they definitely shouldn’t be excluded from the political process that gives all Americans a say in the future of their communities. They’re helping pay for a system while being denied the opportunity that other citizens have to influence the way that system is run. It’s wrong. As Thompson puts it, “Even being a convicted felon and owing money, you should still have the right to voice your opinion.”