Balancing Prison’s High Cost With Fines, Fees, and Restitution Payments

By Charles David Henry
Journalism Guild Writer

To offset the cost of imprisonment, the criminal justice system imposes fines, fees, and restitution payments. The system can burden an offender with a financial obligation at every stage of the legal process, a new report says.

The report lists two primary justifications underlining these obligations: One is to punish the offender, and the other is to generate revenue for the criminal justice system.

“Legal systems impose fines, fees, and restitution requirements as a punitive measure intended to deter offenders from future crime,” while court-imposed fines are intended to punish offenders or to provide financial compensation to victims, according to an August report by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Some jurisdictions spend more money on “debt collection and punishing offenders who are behind on their payments than they are likely to recoup from enforcing the financial obligations of ex-offenders,” the report noted.

In a study prepared by the Brennan Center of the 15 states with the highest prison populations, researchers discovered that individuals who cannot pay their debt all at once are charged with added poverty penalties that include late fees, interest and payment plan fees.

California, Florida, Ohio, and Texas charge public defender fees, “which could include a fee to apply for a public defender, fees for the cost of legal defense, and various administrative court fees,” the report noted.

Riverside County requires financially solvent inmates to pay $142 per day for their incarcerations.

According to the report, “Florida has raised many of its existing fees by $10 to $50 and enacted 20 different fees for individuals ensnared in the criminal justice system.”

In addition, “These added fees include requirements that defendants pay for the cost of prosecution (minimum $50 charge), various surcharges that vary by offense type (a low of $15 for criminal traffic violations and a high of $151 for assault and battery convictions) and charges to inmates for subsistence cost while incarcerated,” the report said.

Texas charges a fee for judicial fund court costs ($15) as well as requiring offenders to pay a string of charges, including an arrest fee ($5), a warrant fee ($50) and a time payment fee ($25), the report revealed.

“Restitution is one of the few mechanisms by which the criminal justice system seeks to acknowledge and address the direct impact of crime on victims,” the report said.

In many courts, offenders must “Provide financial compensation to the victim for loss or damage to their property, lost income due to missing work, direct medical expenses, and psychological services, among other things,” the report said.

Restitution debt is particularly concerning to the criminal justice because “The majority of offenders lack the financial resources to pay their debts.” The report said restitution comprises the largest proportion of criminal debt for individual offenders.

According to the report, “Nonpayment of restitution obligations is inherently problematic. The Mandatory Victims Restitution Act requires federal courts to order restitution without consideration of an offender’s capacity to pay.”

“Despite the inability of most offenders to pay their restitution obligations, criminal justice officials must attempt to collect this debt. Most collection methods have not been effective and result in extensive administrative costs,” it was reported.

It was also reported that, “Approximately 70 percent of incarcerated males between the ages of 33 and 40 are fathers, and the majority owe child support arrearages that they are unable to pay.”

In many situations, “Noncustodial parents enter prison owing an average of more than $10,000 in child support debt,” the report said. They stand to accumulate nearly $20,000 in additional debt by the completion of their sentence, according to the report.

“An estimated 10 million people owe more than $50 billion in debt resulting from their involvement in the criminal justice system. …The majority of offenders may never be able to pay off their criminal debt because they are poor both before and after their incarceration,” the report states.


One comment on “Balancing Prison’s High Cost With Fines, Fees, and Restitution Payments

  1. it is never fair to take the life of another human being by incarcerating them for life. How does that help the family of the victims. When family members are incarcerated the whole family suffers, from financial burdens to doing the time with the incarcerated individual. Restitution is not a way of helping the victims family especially in the case of my family member, the victims family was compensated by retiree funds, and because he had a very good job his family has the opportunity to collect Social Security. As far as Public Defenders. My family member had an appointed Attorney that did nothing but sit and let the Public Defender on the other persons case do all the foot work and made the statement, “it doesn’t matter which one goes to jail as long as one goes. My family member was considered the the co-offender of the crime and was not given correct counseling. I have felt like I am being punished because there is no one to carry on his name. He has never had the opportunity to be married and I only have one son. during the war times the only surviving son is spared, my son has never been a troublesome child. He was a very respectful individual he was told the were going to a Church Concert when he left the house, I then find out that three of the individuals were affiliated with gangs and my son was between a rock and a hard stone. I had asked for a change of venue and for the case to be severed but was denied on both request. Half the jury did not pay attention items were entered into evidence that had no bearings on the case itself, later the evidence was thrown out and the jury was told to ignore the previous.evidence because the wife of the victim told the judge that that evidence was not the victims, By that time it had been shown several times during the trial that made it impossible to just ignore. I feel that my son was wrongly charged for a crime he happened to be at, he was the eldest so he was used as an example. I know my son was not completely innocent but why does a by stander have to be charged with the same crime as the person that committed the crime. In actuality the two persons that committed the crime admitted on the stand that they lied on the witness stand and nothing ever changed. The court brought in a young lady that heard them talking about how it all took place, they were talking and laughing about the part the played in the crime, but they said her story was not credible because she was know to have been in trouble before, first of all I was under the impression that persons involved in the same case was to be separated until after the trial, that was not the case in this particular trial, The jury was never sequestered and was told not to read the news paper and not to discuss the case with no one, Well the News Paper had the pictures and the story on the front page of the news paper every day. The crime happened in a very small Town and there was never a case like that. which happened in that Town, so, it was the talk of the town. How is that Justice? How could you not talk about the case in such a small town when it made the front page news?

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