How Cities Make Money by Fining the Poor

For every day a defendant stayed in the Alcorn County jail, $25 was knocked off his or her fine. Tillman had been locked up for five days as she awaited her hearing, meaning she had accumulated a credit of $125 toward the overall fine of $255. (The extra $155 was a processing fee.) Her balance on the fine was now $130. Was Tillman able to produce that or call someone who could?

…That night, Tillman says, she conducted an informal poll of the 20 or so women in her pod at the Alcorn County jail. A majority, she says, were incarcerated for the same reason she was: an inability to pay a fine. Some had been languishing in jail for weeks. The inmates even had a phrase for it: “sitting it out.” 

…Justice Sandra Day O’Connor called it “fundamentally unfair” to send him to prison for nonpayment without “considering whether adequate alternative methods of punish[ment]” — like community service or a payment plan — were available. To do otherwise was to deprive a person of his freedom simply because he happened to be poor.

…In areas hit by recession or falling tax revenue, fines and fees help pay the bills. 

…Financial penalties on the poor are now a leading source of revenue for municipalities around the country. In Alabama, for example, the Southern Poverty Law Center took up the case of a woman who was jailed for missing a court date related to an unpaid utility bill. In Oregon, courts have issued hefty fines to the parents of truant schoolchildren. Many counties around the country engage in civil forfeiture, the seizure of vehicles and cash from people suspected (but not necessarily proven in court) of having broken the law. In Louisiana, pretrial diversion laws empower the police to offer traffic offenders a choice: Pay up quickly, and the ticket won’t go on your record; fight the ticket in court, and you’ll face additional fees.

….By threatening a defendant with incarceration, a judge is often able to extract cash from a person’s family that might otherwise be difficult to touch. “A typical creditor,” he says, “can’t put you in a steel cage if you can’t come up with the money.”

…Among the findings, released the following spring, was evidence that the city had been routinely jailing residents for failure to pay criminal-justice-related debt and that “the court’s practices impose unnecessary harm, overwhelmingly on African-American individuals.” 

…Combing Census Bureau data and city audit documents, the commission noted that of nearly 4,600 American municipalities with populations above 5,000, the median received less than 1 percent of their revenue from fines and fees. But a sizable number of cities, like Doraville, Ga., or Saint Ann, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis, have reported fines-and-fees revenue amounting to 10 percent or more of total municipal income.

…“But you can also see,” she added, “that the biggest expenditure, by far, for the city of Corinth is public safety” — including court and police services, or the very people extracting the fines.

…A Municipal Court staff member picked up on the third ring. “Could you answer a question for me?” West asked the woman. “I’m wondering what would happen if I was unable to pay a speeding ticket. Would I lose my driving license?”

“What do you mean?” she responded. And then: “You’d go to jail.”

…Traveling around Corinth, Wood found that nearly everyone she met had experience with the local courts or could refer her to someone who did. Soon her voice mail inbox filled with messages from people who wanted to share their stories. The callers were diverse in terms of age and race. They were black and white; they were young and old. But they shared with Kenneth Lindsey a precipitous relationship to rock-bottom poverty. If not completely destitute, they were close — a part-time job away from homelessness, a food-stamp card away from going hungry.

…And there was Glenn Chastain, who owed $1,200 for expired vehicle tags — and, because he had missed one hearing, was denied the chance to pay a partial fine. Chastain spent 48 days at the Alcorn County Correctional Facility. He said he was in a unit occupied by accused rapists and murderers and was beaten by inmates until his ribs were bruised and his face was a mask of blood. He smiled to show me where one of his teeth had been knocked out. 

…Nearly every one of Lindsey’s court fees related, in one way or another, to his vehicle: expired registration fees, expired driver’s licenses. He couldn’t pay for the right paperwork or pay down his fines, but he couldn’t stop driving either, because driving was how he got to the auto body shop where he picked up the odd shift. 

…“They come out of jail with absolutely nothing but more problems, and then it just keeps on going and going, and it’s like they’re bound, and they feel like they can’t escape,” Andrea Hurst, Glenn Chastain’s girlfriend, told me about her boyfriend and others who find themselves in similar circumstances. “Their license gets taken, and hey, you get pulled over one day, because the cop knows you got no license, and then back to jail again. You just lost that job again.”

How Cities Make Money by Fining the Poor – The New York Times


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