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Are Fines Imposed on Convicts Self-Defeating?

From YOLO Judicial Watch. Click here to read online.

We have spent a lot of time on these
pages looking at issues like burden of proof and burden shifting, the
overcharging by prosecutors, the overly-stringent and harsh mandatory
sentencing laws, but for the average person who ends up in the system,
the most likely outcome is some sort probation and a fine.

I do
not think we talk nearly enough about the system of fines that have been
imposed.  This week already, I have noted just in sitting through
regular calendar hearings that one individual received a $550 fine for
possession of less than one ounce of marijuana.  Another individual had
his fine reduced down to a little more than $100 by Judge Rosenberg. 
But for the most part we see the regular assessment of fines in minor
crimes, mostly drug possession cases where the individual is put into
some mandatory treatment program (which has additional costs to the
individual) and then they have to pay a fine.

One time, Judge Kathleen White noted
that fines have been introduced by the court system as a way to produce
revenue and cover costs.  Apparently most of these fines do not go to
the county but rather to the state.  There is little doubt that the
state and county are short on revenue and funding sources, but how much
sense does it make to try to balance your budget on the backs of people
who are barely surviving?

In fact, a public defender noted to me
back in July that increasingly, clients are requesting jail time in lieu
of receiving a violation of probation for the failure to pay fines. 
That means that, in effect, the fines are self-defeating to the effort
of truly receiving revenue.  I have not yet been able to quantify how
many that have done this, but that is a problem.

For felony
convicts, the problem is doubly-harsh.  First, they have difficulty
obtaining work because they have to check the felon box.  And second,
what money they have goes to the court as part of a payment plan they
have set up.

In researching this phenomena, it appears to be a relatively new trend, perhaps introduced in the last twenty years.

In October 2007, the New York Times had an editorial, "Out of Prison and Deep in Debt."

it they wrote, "With the nation’s incarcerated population at 2.1
million and growing — and corrections costs topping $60 billion a year —
states are rightly looking for ways to keep people from coming back to
prison once they get out. Programs that help ex-offenders find jobs,
housing, mental health care and drug treatment are part of the solution.
States must also end the Dickensian practice of saddling ex-offenders
with crushing debt that they can never hope to pay off and that drives
many of them right back to prison."

People may be tempted to say
that they brought this on themselves.  And there is no doubt that in
some, if not most situations, that is true.  But that does not stop the

As the editorial points out, "A former inmate living at
or even below the poverty level can be dunned by four or five
departments at once — and can be required to surrender 100 percent of
his or her earnings. People caught in this impossible predicament are
less likely to seek regular employment, making them even more
susceptible to criminal relapse."

In fact, one study found that
12 percent of probation revocations were due not to the individual going
back to a life of crime, but simply the failure to pay their debts. 
And many are thrown back into prison, which makes the system virtually
self-defeating as a means to secure revenue.

Even "small" fines
of $1000, with a payment plan, put a huge burden on an individual likely
to make minimum wage, likely to have treatment obligations that
preclude them from working fulltime, and needing to pay for rent and
other living amenities.

I note an article I saw in the Daily Democrat yesterday,
where a hiring day at McDonald’s brought in 50 to 60 applicants for
about 10 to 15 positions.  This is a McDonald’s job.  That is how
competitive the local job market is and that is the market that these
individuals are being thrust into. 

The economy is bad, job
opportunities, even at unskilled and low-paying positions are few and
far between, and people are being thrust into the system where they have
the added burden of being convicted felons and asked to work or face
more jail time.

Their fault?  Perhaps, but when such
opportunities become scarce, is it not more likely that they will return
to a life of crime and is that not what we wish to avoid?  Don’t we
want these individuals to have a chance to have productive and
law-abiding lives?

The Times article did suggest some
solutions.   "The Justice Center report recommends several important
reforms. First, the states should make one agency responsible for
collecting all debts from ex-offenders. That agency can then set payment
priorities. The report also recommends that payments to the state for
fines and fees be capped at 20 percent of income, except when the former
inmate has sufficient assets to pay more. And in cases where the
custodial parent agrees, the report urges states to consider modifying
child support orders while the noncustodial parent is in prison. Once
that parent is released, child support should be paid first."

continue, "The states should also develop incentives, including
certificates of good conduct and waivers of fines, for ex-offenders who
make good-faith efforts to make their payments. Where appropriate, they
should be permitted to work off some of the debt through community
service. Beyond that, elected officials who worry about recidivism need
to understand that bleeding ex-offenders financially is a sure recipe
for landing them back in jail."

We will be looking into this problem further in the future.

—David M. Greenwald reporting