As The PBEye previously reported, criminal justice debt is a persistently troubling part of our nation’s criminal justice system, as there are substantial expenses incurred by offenders throughout the entire incarceration process.
As states, cities, and counties face increasingly tight budget constraints, many have turned to the offenders themselves to offset some of those costs. Fees and surcharges are now imposed at nearly every stage of criminal processing, such as fees for public defenders, jail fees, court administrative fees, prosecution fees, probation fees, and more. Offenders are often saddled with overwhelming costs which they struggle to pay, resulting in additional prison sentences or other consequences that pose barriers to re-entering society, such as loss of one’s driver’s license (which can jeopardize a person’s efforts to seek employment) or denial of public benefits like housing assistance. In a recent amicus brief, The Brennan Center for Justice, along with the ACLU of Michigan and McDermott Will & Emery*†, argues that these hefty fees and fines are problematic when defendants are unable to pay and outlines ways to counteract these unfair practices.
Additionally, unjust profiteering schemes expose offenders and their families to unexpected expenses while incarcerated. For example, for-profit prison phone companies charge sky-high rates, making it difficult for families to stay connected. Additionally, some like the Arizona Department of Corrections charge a visitors fee, which supposedly covers visitor background checks, though some of the money is used for other purposes. Fees such as these disproportionately impact the poor and are detrimental to offenders’ children and loved ones, as well as the offenders themselves, as it’s well-documented that those who stay in touch with their families are less likely to reoffend. Organizations such as the ACLU, the Brennan Center for Justice, and the Alabama Public Service Commission are working diligently to end predatory practices such as these.
Whether through litigation or policy advocacy, public interest organizations and law firms are actively engaged in reducing the overwhelming expense of being a low-income offender. Prison “profiteering” is at odds with our commitment to reduce over-incarceration and recidivism. Projects that work to eliminate these collateral consequences of incarceration can be meaningful sources of pro bono projects—so if you’re looking for a new pro bono project, this may be a great place to start.
* denotes a Signatory to the Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge®
† denotes a Member of the Law Firm Pro Bono Project