Criminal Justice Debt

The PBEye previously reported on the many barriers convicts face after being released from prison.  In addition to the myriad obstacles including legal barriers such as lack of identification, suspension of driver’s license, child support payments, and problems receiving government benefits, many ex-offenders face the struggles of trying to pay a number of other fees.  States charge numerous fees at every stage of criminal processing—fees for public defenders, jail fees, prison fees, court administrative fees, prosecution fees, probation fees, parole fees, etc.  Many offenders struggle to make payments, resulting in them having to serve an additional prison sentence or other consequences that pose barriers to re-entering society such as being removed from welfare or having a lien placed on their home.

The New York Times recently shined the spotlight on the issue of judges routinely jailing people to make them pay fines even when they have no money to pay.  Minor offenders who cannot pay a fine or fee often find themselves in jail cells.  And felony offenders who have completed their prison sentences are often sent back to jail when they cannot pay fines and fees they owe because they could not earn money while locked up.  As our friend Lisa W. Borden, pro bono partner at Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, PC†, who has worked on the issue, told The Times:

With so many towns economically strapped, there is growing pressure on the courts to bring in money rather than mete out justice . . . . The companies they hire are aggressive. Those arrested are not told about the right to counsel or asked whether they are indigent or offered an alternative to fines and jail. There are real constitutional issues at stake

Our friends at The Brennan Center for Justice just released a new report, “Criminal Justice Debt: A Toolkit for Action,” highlighting the issue of criminal justice debt for the overwhelmingly indigent population of the U.S.  The report examines the problems that criminal justice debt collection policies create for the individuals in the criminal justice system and the communities in which they live.  The report also analyzes the impact these charges have had on the states that attempt to collect fees from those who cannot pay them.  The authors propose areas that advocates can target for reform and present action materials that advocates can use to build a successful campaign to fight for more just policies.

Looking for a new pro bono project?  This might be a great place to start.

† denotes a Member of the Law Firm Pro Bono Project