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.