I have just one "subject" today which seems to me to call for the efforts of the Greek Furies (Erinyes) to come and deal with it. As a reminder, though no one really knows how many there were supposed to be, the three names we have are Alecto, Megaera, and Tisiphone. These roughly translate as "unceasing," "grudging," and "vengeful destruction."
I say it's a "subject" because it isn't a single incident, which is what I usually try to find, nor even a group of incidents tied by a common thread, but all having names attached, as I used last week. It's a systemic issue which affects people in every one of the United States' fifty. It's nothing we haven't seen before in individual cases, but we may not have looksd at how thoroughly our justice system is permeated with it. And just this month a new book has been published about it.
Now, I'm not here to sell books (or anything else), and I haven't bought this one, so I'll be leaning heavily on the interview in Take Part which led me to the subject, and on a white paper the author, Dr. Alexes Harris, a Professor of Sociology at the University of Washington, posted while the book was still in progress.
When we think about a person "paying" for his crimes, we generally think about someone spending time in prison, or occasionally and if the sentence is short enough, in jail. Unless it's, say a speeding ticket, and then one simply pays the fine and it's over. We don't think that "anyone convicted of any type of criminal offense is subject to fiscal penalties or monetary sanctions." Nor that "[T]he base fine of, say, a speeding ticket or even a major criminal conviction is just a small portion of the total cost. There are fines, fees, interest, surcharges, per payment and collection charges, and restitution." Least of all does it occur to us that "Until these debts are paid in full, individuals who have otherwise 'done their time' remain under judicial supervision and are subject to court summons, warrants, and even jail stays."
Naturally, no one wants debt haning over their heads. So those who can manage to do so, pay the fines up front. For those who cannot, all the additional charges, particularlt those which accrue over time, combine to make legal debt a life sentence. One which disproportionately affects the poor, the unemployed, the homeless, and those suffering mental or physical illness.
Every state has provision in law for fines to be imposed upon conviction in addition to incarceration. Also, individual counties, judicial district, parishes, whatever, can impose their own fines and fees, by county code, or informally, at the discretion of local clerks' offices. Some of these appear to me to be in violation of the Constitution. For example, in Louisiana, indigent defendants are assessed an up front fee for their public defender. In North Carolina, every felony defendant, regardless of whether or not convicted, is assessed a "cost of justice" fee. Wasn't there something in the Fourth Amendment about unreasonable search and seizure?
Legally speaking, monetary sanctions like fines and fees are part of a court sentence. Until these are paid in full, the individual's life belings to the court. Even if all else is completed, imagine trying to get a job, rent a place to live, or, God forbid, get a loan with legal debt hanging over your credit record. Legal debt effectively derails prospects for success after conviction.
So why do states (and counties) keep piling these on? Are they actually getting any money from those who are desperately poor? Well, if they can get enough very small payments, they can at least believe they are. In 2012, for insance, Washington State generated $29 million from half a million people. Dr. Harris added, "The court clerks I talked to all said they needed this source of income but couldn’t tell me where it was going. I have a new project where I’m trying to figure out where all of this money goes—how much is generated and recovered and what percentage goes where."
And the debt keeps increasing: (emphasis mine)
Ironically, as a result of mass conviction and incarceration, jurisdictions cannot afford criminal justice costs. They are attempting to literally transfer these expenses to defendants. Since the vast majority of people who receive felony convictions in the U.S. have minimal employment and income prospects post-conviction, monetary sanctions deepen existing inequalities. Poor people carry the onerous weight of a criminal record in very different ways and for longer periods of time than those with financial resources and good connections (that is, people from whom they can borrow money). In effect, because they can’t pay their debts, the poor become perpetual subjects of the criminal justice system.
I think perhaps we will need a multi-pronged strategy to deal with this situation. Tisiphone, because it's difficult for mortals to find out the facts – court systems are not autmated, and, in the rare cases in which they are, they are not consistent – "[W]e cannot know how many are jailed or how much is spent on monitoring, arresting, and incarcerating people for non-payment. Researchers truly cannot calculate the total criminal justice resources consumed in managing legal debtors, collecting outstanding debt, and sanctioning those who have not made payments." I am asking you to find out how much of this mess, if any, is productive – and how much is just vengeful destruction. Megaera, you need to attack the grudging attitudes of those who would make all criminal justice into "pay to play," further disadvantaging the poor. And, Alecto, you need to pester legislators, bureaucrats, and activists without ceasing, because this travesty will never end until we end it, and we apparently need our feet held to the fire and our noses to the grindstone (now, there's an image).
Not that there aren't plenty of other things wrong with criminal justice in the United States. But this would be a start.
The Furies and I will be back.
Cross posted to Care2 at http://www.care2.com/news/member/101612212/3993483