Prison fines and fees are used to pay for basic government functions : Planet Money When you get out of prison, you have to start paying off fees. Some are related to committing a crime. Others are not. | Subscribe to our weekly newsletter here.
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Fine and Punishment

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Fine and Punishment

Fine and Punishment

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON, BYLINE: This is PLANET MONEY from NPR.

MICHAEL TAYLOR: We wake up, like, at 6:30 - 6:30 in the morning. They wake us up. So they called down to my unit, and they said, tell Michael Taylor (ph) to pack his stuff. He's leaving.

MARY CHILDS, HOST:

Michael Taylor was leaving prison in Oklahoma.

SARAH GONZALEZ, HOST:

But before we get into that, here's a little bit about Michael. Michael laughs a lot but doesn't joke a lot. He doesn't mind a good chick flick every now and then, and he thinks anyone who's met him would say he's fair.

TAYLOR: He's fair - always fair to fault. And he doesn't make fun of people. I don't - you just don't do that.

CHILDS: So it's 6:30 a.m., and a corrections officer just told Michael it's time to go.

TAYLOR: He said, you got a little time, though. So if you want to say your goodbyes, go ahead and say your goodbyes.

GONZALEZ: It was actually really sad for Michael.

TAYLOR: It's like they threw me out. Even though - I mean, of course, I wanted to go. Of course I want freedom. But it's like they threw me out.

CHILDS: He starts the process of essentially checking out of prison.

TAYLOR: You're doing the - what they call the world tour. You're doing the tour. And, you know, and these are the places that you have to go to get signed, and they sign off on your deal. So you go around. You go to medical to make sure that you got all your medication, that you got your checkups. You go to the library to make sure you ain't stealing no books, and you ain't packing no books out of their prison. You go the laundry to make sure that you don't have any of their clothes. And you go to the chapel to make sure that you ain't packing off no Bibles. Oh, yeah.

GONZALEZ: He's being driven around to all these places. Prisons are big compounds, like their own little cities. And the last step in the tour is the warden's office.

TAYLOR: And so finally, I get to the warden's office, and he shakes my hand. He signs my paperwork.

CHILDS: He's handed what's called his jacket. That's his paperwork in a folder.

TAYLOR: And in my jacket, it said, this is his court costs and fines. And they'll tell you what fines you need to pay and what fines you need to do.

GONZALEZ: These are your court fines and everything you owe.

TAYLOR: Yeah.

GONZALEZ: How much did you owe?

TAYLOR: I'm not proud of this, and I really don't want to say it, but I've been to prison for 40 years of my life.

CHILDS: He's been in and out.

TAYLOR: I've never murdered anybody. I've sold drugs. When I was a kid, I stole cars and burglarized stores - not houses, stores. So that's, like, 13, 14 - oh, I probably owe $20,000 in court costs and fines throughout my incarceration history.

GONZALEZ: It can be hard for people with long criminal records to know exactly how much they owe. But we were able to confirm that Michael does have at least $13,508.55 in prison debt.

CHILDS: Some of the fees are related to using the resources of the justice system. Like, you did a crime. Some stenographer had to type up court minutes during your hearing, so you get charged for that typing.

GONZALEZ: But other fees - a lot of them - really have nothing at all to do with committing a crime. Like, there's this fee to maintain the court's website - $25. And we wanted to know how all of these small fees could possibly add up to something like $13,000.

Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Sarah Gonzalez.

CHILDS: And I'm Mary Childs. Court fees are not actually considered part of the punishment. The punishment is incarceration. These fees are about generating money. And they really started popping up across the country after Americans started to vote for hard caps on taxes.

GONZALEZ: Today on the show, how courts ran out of money, looked around and thought, maybe crime could pay.

Before the pandemic, we were in Oklahoma. And after we met Michael, we met up with a few women who also recently got out of prison. They were all living in a halfway house together.

KAYLA BOYLE: All that grease.

GONZALEZ: And they're all cooking.

BOYLE: Yes - cabbage and bacon and chocolate cake.

CHILDS: It's Kayla's birthday - Kayla Boyle. She's one of the house moms. She's 56, has a bunch of sparkly bracelets on and sparkly nails that she says make her feel girly. And she says she's a different person than she used to be.

BOYLE: Really, really different person. Yes, I am, absolutely.

GONZALEZ: Kayla did 10 years for a drug charge. It was meth.

BOYLE: For manufacturing - and I had possession within a thousand feet of a school.

CHILDS: It was a college. She also had a gun.

GONZALEZ: And when she finished her sentence, she owed $11,000.

CHILDS: She pays a little off every month - $50, $75 - so she still has a really big balance.

BOYLE: Eight-thousand seven-hundred ninety-one dollars and sixty cents - and I've been paying on it for three years.

GONZALEZ: That's like a car.

BOYLE: It is like a car (laughter). Yes.

GONZALEZ: What are the fines? Like, a police officer put handcuffs on you - there's a fine for that. Or, like, what is it?

BOYLE: Absolutely, because you have to pay their - you know, you have to pay their paycheck, too. But, I mean, it's, like, some of them are 911 fees, some kind of mental health something or other charge. I can show you on the computer where it breaks down. It's easier to do it that way.

CHILDS: Kayla pulls up her account. And one of the other women in the house who just got out a few months ago - she's looking at her bill with Kayla, too.

TERIANN VAN WINKLE: I owe 2,550.25 to McCurtain County.

CHILDS: Will you say your name for us?

VAN WINKLE: My name is Teriann Van Winkle.

CHILDS: Van Winkle's a good name.

VAN WINKLE: No, it's not. It's my ex-husband's last name.

CHILDS: Oh, sorry.

GONZALEZ: We hate that name. We hate her ex-husband's last name - terrible name.

Teriann did two years for forging a check. But she has a job now at Subway. She put on fake eyelashes today.

VAN WINKLE: I feel like there's glue all over my face.

GONZALEZ: She's excited about her new life.

CHILDS: She and Kayla are scrolling through their lists of fees to show us. They're pretty long lists.

VAN WINKLE: A district attorney fee for $50, a medical expense fee for $10, the state treasurer's forensics fee, which I don't know why there's a forensic fee because it's not even a drug charge, which was $5.

CHILDS: There are charges for some child abuse fund.

VAN WINKLE: And it goes to, like, children that are being abused.

GONZALEZ: Even though you did not have a child abuse-related case.

VAN WINKLE: Right. Correct.

BOYLE: We've got sheriff fee, $5.

GONZALEZ: Here's Kayla again.

BOYLE: Law library fee, $6.

GONZALEZ: Mental health assessment fee...

BOYLE: That's the one I was talking about - mental health assessment fee, a hundred dollars. I didn't get a mental health assessment.

CHILDS: Trauma care - a hundred dollars.

BOYLE: What is that?

GONZALEZ: They're both confused. Like, wait; should I have gotten this fee? I didn't get trauma care. I didn't get a mental health assessment. Maybe the county messed up. But the county did not mess up.

CHILDS: Every state has fines and fees like this. National groups, national experts say it's because incarcerating more and more people became really expensive. And at the same time, people started revolting against paying taxes. Since 2008, almost every state has increased these fines and fees or added new ones.

GONZALEZ: And there's an argument that people who use the justice system should have to pay for it. Why should law-abiding citizens have to? And some of the fees on the list are related to using resources of the justice system, like the DA fee. A prosecutor had to prosecute you, so you have to pay the prosecutor for that. Or the court-appointed attorney fee - yes, you're entitled to an attorney, but you're not entitled to a free attorney. You have to pay for it.

CHILDS: Other fees, we couldn't really tell what they were for, so we called up Ryan Gentzler with the Oklahoma Policy Institute. He's researched these fees for years.

RYAN GENTZLER: The trauma center - so where the most serious hospital cases go to - was about to close. And instead of finding the, you know, couple million dollars that they needed to run that, they added a fee to every traffic ticket, every felony, every misdemeanor in order to fund that trauma center.

GONZALEZ: Yeah. So I interviewed a couple of women in Oklahoma who were going through their fees and fines after they walked out of prison, after they served their sentences. And they were, like, trauma center? I never went to a trauma center. You know, they were sort of thinking, like, I had a traumatic life and that this meant, like...

GENTZLER: Oh.

GONZALEZ: ...Some kind of trauma care for, like, my own life.

GENTZLER: Yeah.

GONZALEZ: And it has nothing to do with their crimes or them as people. It's, like, just the fund for funding the trauma center in Oklahoma.

GENTZLER: Right. And that's the same thing that just happened over and over - $5 here, $10 there.

CHILDS: By the way, some funds for trauma care also come from boat motor registration, apparently.

GONZALEZ: Whenever a state needs to raise money, they can tack on a new fee. They can tack on a new fee to every misdemeanor, every felony, and anyone who gets a traffic ticket, even. And here's how these fees started piling up in Oklahoma. In 1992, the state created a new law that said you need a 75% majority in both houses in order to raise taxes, but the same was not true for lowering taxes. So it was super-hard to raise taxes and super-easy to lower them.

CHILDS: So taxes went down. And pretty quickly, they realized they'd created a problem for themselves. They didn't have enough money to fund basic government functions like schools and health care, that trauma center.

GENTZLER: There's just these enormous budget holes that started to develop.

GONZALEZ: And the legislature could not for the life of them get enough votes to raise taxes. Oklahoma actually saw zero tax increases for more than two decades. Not until 2018 did a single tax go up. So they had to come up with some other way to raise money. And they thought, we could add more fees.

CHILDS: When prosecutors in Oklahoma were complaining that they couldn't attract good prosecutors because the pay was so low, Ryan says they went to the legislature and asked if they could add a new fee to the list. And they got it. So now, once your case is over in Oklahoma, the DA's office can make you pay $40 a month for up to two years just because the DA used to have to work on your case.

GONZALEZ: That's at least related to the justice system. But Ryan says people like Teriann and Kayla and Michael, they're actually not just paying for the parts of the system they use. They're paying for things that have nothing to do with committing a crime or using state resources.

CHILDS: Like, remember the child abuse fee that Teriann Van Winkle was talking about? That one is $3. And, yes, fighting child abuse is really important. But Ryan says he doesn't know why people who forged checks in particular like Teriann have to fund it. And Teriann has a job, too. Taxes come out of her paycheck, so she's paying for public services twice.

GONZALEZ: I think that there are some listeners who would think, well, if you are incurring costs while you're in a county jail or a prison, then, yeah, you should have to pay for it. But it's not their costs.

GENTZLER: Right. That's what basically all these fees end up being.

GONZALEZ: And not paying your fees is not really an option. If you miss three payments in a row, it's a violation of your parole, and they can issue a warrant for your rearrest.

TAYLOR: I've been locked up twice for failure to pay.

CHILDS: That's Michael again, who did the world tour.

TAYLOR: And one time, it was two days, and the other time, it was, like, a week.

GONZALEZ: Michael hasn't always paid his fees.

TAYLOR: They're putting pressure on you to pay. But, I mean, it's not like - you know, if you're making some kind of effort. I've given them a dollar before and gotten a receipt for it. But now it's like every nickel I get I need - every nickel I get.

CHILDS: This most recent time, Michael walked out of prison with a bus ticket and enough money to buy some barbecue chips and lotto tickets. When he got to his stop, he stayed at the station all night, then went to a homeless shelter the next day. He has a part-time job now but is still living in a shelter.

TAYLOR: What I have is all the money I get by working. I'm not going to allow you to fine me into poverty. I'm not going to allow you to take any more food out of my mouth to pay you for something I served. I feel like I've given you enough blood in my lifetime. I'm not paying you for that anymore. I'm not going to pay you anymore. I don't have any money to pay you.

GONZALEZ: Now, in the U.S., you are not supposed to go to jail for being too poor to pay anything. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled pretty clearly three times that we cannot have debtors' prisons in the U.S. We banned debtors' prisons in 1833. Before that, there were actual brick dungeons in, like, Manhattan and Philadelphia just for people who couldn't pay their debts.

CHILDS: But the Supreme Court has said you can still go to jail if you are choosing not to pay - like, if you have the money and you just choose not to pay.

GONZALEZ: And there's also a loophole. When you get rearrested today for failing to pay your fees and fines, you're technically arrested for violating your parole or probation, not for being too poor to pay. It's a tricky little workaround that some people think is actually a violation of the Supreme Court law.

CHILDS: And trying to collect these tiny fees is difficult and expensive. Oklahoma issues an average of $150 million in fees every year and gets just 45 million. But it's not just Oklahoma. In New Mexico, the Brennan Center found that one county was spending $1.17 cents to collect $1.

GONZALEZ: And here's where things get really twisted. There is this one kind of gross way that you can pay off your debt without actually making any payments. You can sit in jail.

GENTZLER: Right. Some judges will allow you to what's called sit out your fines and fees.

CHILDS: That's Ryan Gentzler again.

GENTZLER: So if you have, you know, say, $1,500 in fines and fees, they'll let you stay in their jail and, for every night that you spend there, you know, take $50 off of your fines and fees.

GONZALEZ: This, of course, makes no sense since sitting in jail actually costs the county money. They have to feed you, house you, guard you. And you're not out there in the world earning an income, which they could then tax. And yet sitting out your fees is a real thing that happens.

GENTZLER: Oh, yeah. It happens a lot. I mean, the big counties have kind of tried to curb it, but we know it's extremely widespread still.

CHILDS: Yeah. All this stuff happens all over the place. California is notorious for having a ton of these fees. So is North Carolina. In Ferguson, Mo., so many people were having warrants issued over fees that the average household had 3.6 warrants. And the fees have been misused. In Louisiana, fees paid for a judge's full-time private chef and for the new leather upholstery in a judge's car. There was a big lawsuit about it.

GONZALEZ: The problem is fees and fines can create perverse incentives. After the break, an economist has a fix for it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MICHAEL MAKOWSKY: You know, it's funny. I'm an economist. And I believe that human beings respond to incentives even when they don't know they're responding to them.

GONZALEZ: Michael Makowsky is an economics professor at Clemson University. He's written a lot about how courts and cops and the justice system have been, like, repurposed to become revenue-generating agents - that's what he says. And not just through fines and fees, but through seizing property and keeping it, making the most speeding tickets.

CHILDS: And he says this realigns the system towards different priorities, which means different outcomes. You're going to go after crimes that lead to collecting money rather than after violent crimes. And if any of these fees go to people's salaries, which they do often - they go to the judges and the bailiffs and the DAs - that can create perverse incentives.

MAKOWSKY: You know, we don't pay firemen a piecemeal rate by the fire because it would be terrible to incentivize them to want more fires. We pay these people for the public good of safety.

GONZALEZ: Michael Makowsky has proposed a really simple way to fix the mismatched incentives. He says no county should be allowed to keep all the revenue they generate from these fees. It should go to a big state pot.

MAKOWSKY: We're disconnecting the incentive from any one arrest, from any one conviction, from any one judicial decision. You're not keeping that dollar anymore; you have to give it to the pot.

GONZALEZ: If you no longer get to keep all the money, you'll probably be less excited about coming up with new fees.

MAKOWSKY: So if I'm a single municipality who wants to introduce a new ride-along fee that says any person who's arrested and then driven to the police department or the jail, they have to pay a $50 fee, well, you don't actually keep $50 anymore, right? Your new fee you just invented, that's spread across everyone else in the state before it's redistributed back.

GONZALEZ: Maybe you just get to keep 15 cents of your new $50 fee.

MAKOWSKY: So it would - you would expect to see fewer new fees. And then it also means they're going to be that much easier to repeal.

CHILDS: Because they're less profitable. And Michael Makowsky says that for the people who have to pay all these fees, it's basically a tax, a regressive tax. That just means that it falls disproportionately on the poor. And he says it's really easy to tax this group of people, people with criminal records. In some states, they can't even vote. They have no say in the fees that are imposed on them.

MAKOWSKY: And I don't think we should suffer the delusion that public safety is a good that we can get for free, let alone off the backs of literally the poorest members of our society.

GONZALEZ: And just think about what these fees and fines have done. We are asking people who we know have a hard time getting jobs, people with criminal records, to pay thousands in fees just so someone else could pay marginally less in, say, property taxes.

CHILDS: As for Teriann Van Winkle, she's been out for a little over a year. And she's on a payment plan. She has to pay $20 a month for the next 10 years. Twenty dollars might not sound like a lot, but when you first get out of prison and money is tight, Teriann says handing over that $20 is not easy. She's still at the halfway house - by the way, paying to be there. And she's still working at Subway.

VAN WINKLE: It is a lot easier to do everything that you're not supposed to. It's a lot easier. So I don't know. I'm just trying hard every day. I'm doing really good at my job. My best friend is my boss.

CHILDS: She's already gotten promoted at work. And at her halfway house, she is a house manager now. She graduates from that program in May and will move into her own place.

GONZALEZ: We also checked in with Michael Taylor last night. And he is out of the shelter. He has his own place.

TAYLOR: The only thing left is a vehicle. That's it. That's it. That's it. I'm just saying, man. I'm just saying.

GONZALEZ: The only thing left is the car?

TAYLOR: Listen, you thought I was going to be stagnated for all the time? Come, get out.

GONZALEZ: Wait - what are you doing right now?

TAYLOR: Yeah, I'm at a store shopping. I got a jar of coffee. I need a mop. I need - I got coffee. I got that.

GONZALEZ: You're shopping for a mop?

TAYLOR: All that. All that. Listen; come on, man. I'm picking out soap. And it's like, do I want bar soap? Do I want bodywash? Do I have bodywash at the house? I don't know if I do or don't.

GONZALEZ: There's a lot of soap options. You're right. It is overwhelming.

TAYLOR: I know. I know. I know. I know. It does that. But can I get the big Dove? Can I get the small Dove?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GONZALEZ: If you love PLANET MONEY and are able to support the show, the best way to do that is to donate to your local NPR member station. You can do that by going to donate.npr.org/planetmoney.

CHILDS: If you want to send us an email, we are planetmoney@npr.org. We are on TikTok, Twitter, Facebook - just everywhere - at @planetmoney. Today's show was produced by hero James Sneed. Engineering help came from Gilly Moon. Alex Goldmark is PLANET MONEY's supervising producer. Brian Urstadt is our editor.

GONZALEZ: I'm Sarah Gonzalez.

CHILDS: And I'm Mary Childs. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.

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