As Court Fees Rise, The Poor Are Paying The Price An NPR investigation has found an explosion in the use of fees charged to criminal defendants across the country, which has created a system of justice that targets the poor.
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As Court Fees Rise, The Poor Are Paying The Price

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As Court Fees Rise, The Poor Are Paying The Price

As Court Fees Rise, The Poor Are Paying The Price

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. More and more defendants in the U.S. justice system are paying the costs of their own trials and sentences, and the poor can face tough penalties - even jail time - if they can't cover their fees. That's what an NPR investigation of the criminal justice system reveals and it's something found in all 50 states. It's a symptom of governments trying to manage the soaring costs of jails and courthouses. NPR investigative correspondent Joseph Shapiro brings us the first story in a series that we're calling Guilty and Charged.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: NPR got one year of jail records for Benton County, Washington. That county covers a windy sweep of farms and small cities along the Columbia River in southern Washington. We counted the people who went through the court that handles misdemeanor cases. And we found that, on a typical day, about 25 percent of those people in the county jail, are there not for their misdemeanor offenses but because they failed to pay the court fines and fees. Twice a week, the courts in Benton County call scores and scores of people to appear and explain why they've failed to pay.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Your honor, if I could next call Barry Smith.

SHAPIRO: These are people who say they're too poor to pay fines and fees that routinely reach hundreds or even thousands of dollars. They've been fined in District court on misdemeanors, like driving with a suspended license, or failing to put a kid in a car seat, and in Superior Court on felonies like drug possession, or, in this case, theft. A public defender explained why her client couldn't pay his fines.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: This young man, he gets a cash assistance of 197 per month. Currently, he is homeless.

SHAPIRO: The defendant is wearing the brown uniform of the county jail. He was just arrested because he hasn't paid $1,200 he owes. Actually his bill just went up. The warrant that was issued for his arrest cost the county $100 - and it's charged to him. That's one of hundreds of examples NPR found of how courts - here and around the country - pass on costs to defendants. In this court, the defendant reminds the judge he's homeless. He says he can come up with $5 on each of his ten charges. But the judge notes that he's got years of unpaid fines and sentences him to jail.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: The court in this matter is going to impose 75 days, in this matter with a purge condition of $500.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: What am I supposed to do? Pray to God that it falls out of the sky in my hands, ma'am?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Well, that's the court's ruling.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: But I don't have the money.

SHAPIRO: Over the past year NPR sat down in courtrooms across the country, interviewed over 150 lawyers, judges, defendants in and out of jail, government officials and other experts. We analyzed jail bookings, read thousands of pages of court records and reviewed laws in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. What we found, again and again, is that the costs of the justice system in the United States are paid increasingly by the defendants themselves. The reliance on fines and fees started with the war-on-crime policies of the 1970s and '80s and kept growing, especially since the recent Great Recession. The result, NPR found, is that today's justice system adds a harsh penalty on people who are poor. And sometimes even jail time for crimes where people with money walk free. And that challenges the basic principle of justice that rich and poor are treated alike. Even some tough-on-crime politicians say it's gone too far.

ROBERT SWISHER: OK. Court costs.

SHAPIRO: Benton County Superior Court Judge Robert Swisher pulls the file on a man he sentenced the other day.

SWISHER: For unlawful possession of a controlled substance, a felony, a Class C felony.

SHAPIRO: The punishment for possession of methamphetamine is probation and 60 days on work crew. Plus, on this one charge, the man will owe $3,460.

SWISHER: That's set by the legislature. We have no control over that. That's automatic.

SHAPIRO: Most of the man's fines and fees are set in law. And what's collected pays for state programs, like one to help crime victims. But there's nearly $1,000 that county judges choose to charge, money that goes back to Benton County.

SWISHER: And $600 reimbursement for the court-provided attorney.

SHAPIRO: Did you catch that? The county charged the man $600 for his public defender. You probably think of that as a free lawyer for people too poor to pay for one on their own. But the NPR survey - and on this part we got help from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law - showed that 43 states now allow defendants to be charged at least an administrative fee for the use of a public defender. The NPR survey found a proliferation of other charges. When someone goes to jail, 41 states allow them to be charged for room and board. When they're assigned a probation or parole officer, in 44 states they can be charged for that too. Just recently, courts have questioned these fees in Georgia, Alabama and Ohio. In Colorado just this month, the governor signed a law to stop judges from putting poor people in jail simply because they don't pay fines and fees. But in Benton County, Washington - and, NPR found, in places around the country- people who don't pay still do end up in jail.

ROBERT INGVALSON: You commit a crime, there are consequences. And we only have two consequences: That's your time or it's your money.

SHAPIRO: Benton County District Court Judge Robert Ingvalson defends the county's heavy use of fines and fees and jail time for those who don't pay. He says it's needed to hold people accountable when they break laws.

INGVALSON: If they won't pay the money, the only thing we can take from them at that point is their time.

VANESSA TORRES HERNANDEZ: So, the threat of incarceration is used to try to squeeze money from those who do not have it.

SHAPIRO: That's Vanessa Torres Hernandez, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington.

HERNANDEZ: If you're wealthy, right, if you have resources, a court fine and fee isn't a big deal. You can pay that money. You can walk free. But for people who are already poor, the court fine and fee is in essence an additional sentence.

SHAPIRO: Two thousand five hundred dollars: that's the average amount of fees, fines and restitution owed by someone convicted of a felony in Washington. It can be hard to make that debt ever go away. The state adds 12 percent interest and more fees.

JANIE FUENTES: Most of my charges stem from being addicted to meth, cocaine and heroin. And I've been clean 16 months. So, I've changed my life around. And I'm trying to do the right thing.

SHAPIRO: That's Janie Fuentes. Some in Benton County, who watch their district court fines keep growing, go to jail for a month, two months or more in exchange for wiping their bill clear. Or they go on a work crew for days or weeks, nine hours a day of physical labor like cleaning trash. They pay off their fines that way. Janie Fuentes has done both.

FUENTES: I'm 45 years old and this is the first time in my life I've wanted to be clean. I actually have a life today. I got my kids back, my grandkids come every weekend. It's just awesome.

SHAPIRO: But Fuentes worries that she'll go back to jail because she can't pay the several thousand dollars she owes in fines. So, on this day, she went to the court and signed up for the county work crew. But here's another example of what gets charged to the poor. There's even a fee - charged by the county - to join the work crew. It costs five dollars a day, Monday through Thursday.

FUENTES: Yes, $20 a week.

SHAPIRO: She's just out of prison. She pays for rent and groceries, but she hasn't found a job.

FUENTES: So, I have to borrow the money to be on work crew. I'm going to be getting that from my daughter.

SHAPIRO: Benton County collects just a fraction of the fines and fees it's owed. But the county still collected $13 million in 2012, making it one of the state's top revenue producers. There is some debate in Benton County about whether that's a good thing. Court officials note - with pride - how much money they raise. But local police chiefs say money goes out too. It costs the police departments about $65 to keep someone in jail for not paying their fines. And the county prosecutor worries that the practice is unfair to poor defendants and he's asked the local judges to put a cap on how many days they'll put people in jail. It's a debate not just in Washington State. It's being argued in states across the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIAL TONES)

SHAPIRO: In Michigan, Frederick Cunningham forged a prescription to get painkiller drugs. He pleaded guilty. And a judge in Allegan County, Michigan sentenced him.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: If this call is in reference to an inmate, please dial zero...

SHAPIRO: Along with that prison time, Cunningham was charged fees $1200 of fees.

FREDERICK CUNNINGHAM: Well, I actually didn't find out till the day of sentencing. And I was, frankly, quite shocked. I mean I just couldn't believe that I could be assessed $1200s.

SHAPIRO: About $200 goes back to the state. These fees -mandated by the state legislature, fund various state programs; one to reimburse the out-of-pocket costs of crime victims, others to pay for the state forensic lab to train judges and highway patrol officers, and for the retirement fund for state lawmakers.

But large amounts go back to the county. Five hundred dollars went to the program that pays for court-appointed attorneys. Cunningham got one of those lawyers because, living on a disability check, he was too poor to pay for one himself. Another $500 went toward the costs of running the court; the salaries of court employees, to heat the courtroom, to pay for the telephones and the copying machines, for the security at the courthouse.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Coins, cell phone, wallet...

SHAPIRO: And Cunningham even paid for the county fitness center.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

CUNNINGHAM: They're even charging us for the employee's fitness gym. I was like, ugh. I couldn't believe it. I don't think people even know that out there.

SHAPIRO: Cunningham's current attorney, Anne Yantus, works for Michigan's State Appellate Defender's Office.

ANNE YANTUS: From the defense view, the sentence is meant to be the punishment for the crime. And to then say that we're going to charge you for the privilege of being prosecuted and sentenced for the crime is somewhat a double penalty.

SHAPIRO: Yantus says state legislators don't want to raise taxes. So they fund popular programs by charging more and more fees to an unpopular group: defendants and the convicted.

Michael Day is the administrator for the Allegan County Circuit Court.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

SHAPIRO: On a tour of the courthouse, Day says it's reasonable to charge defendants for the cost of operating the courts.

MICHAEL DAY: The only reason that the court is in operation and doing business at that point in time is because that defendant has come in and is a user of those services. They don't necessarily see themselves as a customer because, obviously, they're not choosing to be there. But in reality they are.

SHAPIRO: NPR counted some 20 different fees charged to people who go to court in Michigan. In 2012, these raised $345 million. The state court system keeps track and sends judges spread sheets showing how much they collect. Some judges in Michigan are troubled that they're forced, by the counties and by the state legislature, to collect more and more fees from often indigent defendants.

William Buhl recently retired as a circuit court judge.

WILLIAM BUHL: Its money, money, money and it's going on forever. And the question is: At what point do we stop punishing people for something?

SHAPIRO: Patrick Bowler is another retired judge.

PATRICK BOWLER: The feeling for us on the front line that deal with people directly, was that the legislature was out of touch with the society and the economic situation in our communities, and how poor people really are. Some judges felt that the higher ups were attempting to force judges to get blood out of the, you know, proverbial turnip.

SHAPIRO: Judges will get some guidance soon. Last month, the Michigan Supreme Court heard the case of Frederick Cunningham. The justices are expected to rule on whether defendants should be billed for the cost of running the court system.

Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

SIEGEL: Tomorrow in our series, Guilty and Charged, Joe Shapiro gives us a closer little known at that charge for a public defender.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: We have a system that has created a real perverse incentive. We need crime, otherwise the system falls down.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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