By Emma Davies
Emma Davies is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania studying Philosophy.
In Georgia, a man was arrested and ordered to wear an ankle monitor for a year after stealing a can of beer worth only $2. The company administering the ankle monitor then charged him hundreds. When he was unable to pay, even after selling his own blood plasma, he was jailed for non-payment. In Ferguson, Michigan, a homelesssingle, teen mom received a ticket for driving without a license. When she missed her court date, she was arrested, and spent time in jail because she could not pay the $250 bail. Her trouble did not end there, as she ended up spending four months in jail due to accruing fees and fines. At one point, she was arrested after she called the police because her ex-boyfriend had assaulted her .These situations are not anomalies. In numerous counties across the nation, citizens are facing financial penalties and incarceration, due to the fact that they do not have the financial means to pay fees and fines related to the criminal justice process. In fact, according to a 2015 report, 20% of individuals in local jails were incarcerated because they were unable to pay a fee or fine .
Fees and fines faced by defendants take many forms and accrue at all steps in the criminal justice process. People may face fines on minor offenses, such as traffic violations, jaywalking, and littering. Other fees may accrue in the form of legal financial obligations, such as arrest fees, bench warrant fees, crime lab fees, etc. For those who are tried, private probation companies may levy fees for drug tests, community service, or “supervision” fees, like the one enacted to pay for ankle monitors. Furthermore, diversion programs--a form of sentencing in which the offender joins a rehabilitation program--may charge high prices.
The rationale behind many of these fees and fines on face value are legitimate. Primarily, fees and fines doled out by the court system are necessary to generate revenue in order for the court system to operate. Operating a full court requires significant funding, and each individual arrested and tried costs the system as it must invest resources in tracking, pursuing and putting to trial every defendant. Shrinking government budgets often mean that the court itself must find ways to finance itself. Another purpose of these fees are that they serve as deterrents to criminal behavior. The argument behind this, is that, if individuals are fined for small infractions they are less likely to commit petty crimes.
However, even though the economic or social purposes are justified on paper, the reality is that these fees and fines have reverbating consequences that fall disproportionately on the poor. For many defendants, one small infraction can trigger a cycle of poverty and incarceration. For example, some states have a policy of suspending driver’s licenses for non-payment of justice-related fees. As a result, these unlucky defendants may be placed in a tough situation, where they have to choose between losing a job because they cannot travel for work or to continue to drive without a license and run the risk of being pulled over, and face even larger financial penalties and further incarceration. That is, in either case, individuals are burdened with greater financial hardship and are penalized via incarceration. For those who are incarcerated, after they are released, they face barriers that prevent re-entry. Legal employment and self-sufficiency becomes harder, and poverty becomes even more entrenched. When people cannot find jobs or other means of financial support, they are more likely to seek out non-legal means, like criminal activity, to satisfy their basic needs.
Not only do excessive financial penalties in the court system perpetuate incarceration and poverty, but they could also corrupt the pursuit of justice. That is, if courts are more focused on revenue generation than securing justice, the right of due process falters. If prosecutors are more focused on squeezing out money from defendants, then they will face stricter penalties than necessary. If police focused on petty offenses, like traffic violations or littering, then public safety concerns may fail to be a priority. For example, after the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown, the Department of Justice found that Ferguson Municipal Court emphasized revenue over public safety and by consequence disproportionately created hardship on its community, many of which lived in poverty.
Despite the harsh reality, there is progress being made in pockets of the country. For example, in Tampa, Florida, a judge has stopped pursuing incarceration for people who drive on licenses that were suspended for not paying fines. The California state legislature has also banned the practice of incarcerating these individuals. In San Francisco, an alternative to fees and fines have been “quality of life” citations. Rather than having indigent offenders pay out-of-pocket, they pay in the form of substance abuse treatment, counseling, or medical help. Another solution, is reducing the cost of diversion programs. In fact, in Chicago, diversion programs are free. In general, reducing the unnecessary financial burdens and sentencing faced by impoverished individuals because of their economic conditions, requires systemic changes at the hands of judges, prosecutors, police, and the many actors in between that interact in the criminal justice system. However, there is still more that can be done to confront the fact that Americans everyday are penalized and criminalized on account of their financial means.
 Krinsky, Miriam Aroni. “Opinion: Jailed For Being Too Poor.” HuffPost, HuffPost, 12 Feb. 2018, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/opinion-krinsky-debtors-prisons_n_5a720f72e4b09a544b560997.
 Brand, Jessica. “How Fines and Fees Criminalize Poverty: Explained.” The Appeal, The Appeal, 16 July 2018, https://theappeal.org/fines-and-fees-explained-bf4e05d188bf/.
 United States, Congress, “Fees, Fines & Bail: Payments in the Criminal Justice System That Disproportionately Impact the Poor.” Fees, Fines & Bail: Payments in the Criminal Justice System That Disproportionately Impact the Poor, White House, Dec. 2015. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/sites/default/files/page/files/1215_cea_fine_fee_bail_issue_brief.pdf.
Photo Credit: The Dallas Morning News
The opinions and views expressed in this publication are the opinions of the designated authors and do not reflect the opinions or views of the Penn Undergraduate Law Journal, our staff, or our clients.