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.

Sheriff Expresses Concern Over Poverty Issues

By Ross Mirkarimi
San Francisco Sheriff

Poverty in San Francisco is quietly growing unchecked. As one of the wealthiest cities in the country, San Francisco’s budget for fiscal year 2012-13 of $7.9 billion surpasses the budgets of 11 states.

No matter how robust our local economic recovery portends, an honest assessment about poverty will remain impoverished as long as City Hall relies on antiquated economic measures.

It’s time to ditch our disproportionate reliance on federal standards and reassess how we calculate poverty in San Francisco.

A new poverty calculation developed by the Stanford Center on Poverty and the Public Policy Institute of California, the California Poverty Measure, expands the range of expenses and adjusts housing costs geographically.

Under this more comprehensive analysis, the poverty rate for California is 22 percent, and for San Francisco, 23.4 percent.

According to analysts with San Francisco’s office of controller, even with various local safety net adjustments, for a family of four renting in San Francisco, poverty registers at an annual income of $36,349.

The biggest takeaway from a discussion about poverty has little to do with the data itself-it’s the fact that we know what to do but are not doing it.

This reality was brought into sharper focus Jan. 10 (2014) for a growing underclass exiting our County Jail. I had the honor of presiding over the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department Five Keys Charter High School graduation. We are the first city or county in the nation to provide a high school in its jails, a school with a union faculty.

More than 80 women and men, ages 19 to 59, about half in custody and half formerly incarcerated, were feted for obtaining their high school diploma or GED. The graduates’ stories of overcoming adversity and righting their wrongs were incredible. One man concurrently mastered his English as a second language certificate and his GED. A mother overcame her dislike for algebra to test exceptionally well toward her diploma.

It was their day, and ours, as I shared: “Orange is the new black when you don our cap and gown.” But beyond the milestone of a high school diploma, we’re reminded that unless there is affordable access to City College or another similar institution, or vocational training aimed at gainful employment, coupled with life skills for community re-entry, then we’re looking at recycling another generation through poverty.

Because 35 to 40 percent of our inmate population are parents, their incapacity to reach economic sustainability traps their children in a similar cycle.

San Francisco is in the unique position of having one of the most under-crowded jail systems in the country. Progress on tackling high recidivism rates is on the upswing—thanks to the collaboration among our criminal justice partners. However, preparing inmates for the real world is so undermined by the high cost of living in the San Francisco Bay Area that many will return to their families or communities discouraged by their inability to make a decent living or find respectable housing.

Before and after they exit jail in pursuit of a job, we’ll teach the soft and hard skills: Thrift. Determination.

Invariably, though, we’re invigorating a growing class of working poor if we neglect to address the real cost of living and its resulting measure of poverty in San Francisco.

Here is what we can do (about) poverty in San Francisco:

  • Take the politics out of raising the local minimum wage, and stepladder increases over 10 years.
  • Establish an official county poverty rate and methodology to determine it for San Francisco.
  • Develop a city master plan on ending poverty and retaining class diversity.
  • Produce a meaningful response to the mass exodus of San Francisco’s Black population and to the prospective impact on the Latino population.

Actor Pushes to Reduce Mass Incarceration

By Rahsaan Thomas
Staff Writer

Actor Michael K. Williams has joined the American Civil Liberties Union’s battle to curb mass incarceration.

“We’re at a critical moment in this country, and I’m excited to work with the ACLU to push for that change,” said Williams.

ACLU has started a campaign that it hopes will reduce incarceration in America by 50 percent.

“Over the last 40 years, this country has been locking up far too many people – mostly black and brown men – for far too long, and for things like mental illness and drug dependency. It’s just not working,” said Williams in a statement urging people to sign a pledge supporting ACLU’s “Campaign to End Mass Incarceration.”

Williams played Chalky White in the HBO show Boardwalk and Omar Little in The Wire on HBO. He grew up in a New York City housing project and has seen the criminal justice system devastate whole communities.

Mass incarceration bloats our prisons and wastes trillions of taxpayer money, Williams said.

It cuts people off from employment, housing, and family stability, which leads to a cycle of failure, he added.

“We need better solutions For example: shifting our country’s response to drug and alcohol addiction away from the criminal justice system and toward more effective, treatment-based solutions would be a great start,” said Williams.

“Change in our justice system is long overdue–and momentum is on our side. Will you join us and sign the pledge?” asked Williams.