Court Fines and the Poor

An alternative to paying court debt: Working it off, By Rebecca Beitsch, April 4, 2017, Stateline: “When Steven Robinson first landed in county jail here for cocaine possession about a year ago, he had about $12,000 in court debt and his driver’s license had been suspended for more than 20 years because he never paid off earlier fines and fees. But Robinson, 47, and other inmates in the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail are allowed to do community service to work off the debt that they rack up in fines and fees on their way through the court system. By doing more than 1,000 hours of community service while serving time, Robinson has gotten his debt down to about $5,000…”

Prison Diversion Programs and the Poor

  • After a crime, the price of a second chance, By Shaila Dewan and Andrew W. Lehren, December 12, 2016, New York Times: “During the tough financial times of 2011, Marcy Willis, a single mother who raised five children in Atlanta, used her credit card to rent a car for an acquaintance in exchange for cash. But the man — and the car — disappeared, she said. Four months later, when Ms. Willis finally recovered the car and returned it, she was charged with felony theft.  As a first-time offender, Ms. Willis, 52, qualified for a big break: a program called pretrial intervention, also known as diversion. If she took 12 weeks of classes, performed 24 hours of community service and stayed out of trouble, her case would be dismissed and her arrest could be expunged, leaving her record clean…”
  • Alabama prosecutor sets the penalties and fills the coffers, By Shaila Dewan and Andrew W. Lehren, December 13, 2016, New York Times: “It was a run-of-the-mill keg party in an open field, until one guest, Harvey Drayton Burch III, objected to paying for his beer. Witnesses said Mr. Burch fired a gun over the crowd and began spraying Mace. With partyers fleeing, Mr. Burch jumped into the back seat of a car as it drove away.  The driver had a name well known in Henry County: Douglas A. Valeska II, the son of the local district attorney. When the car was stopped, a deputy found a loaded magazine and knife in Mr. Burch’s pocket, a gun and pepper spray in a backpack, and a pink pill on the floorboard. After Mr. Burch admitted to firing his weapon, he was arrested. The district attorney arrived to take his son and two other passengers home…”

Court Fines and the Poor

Court costs entrap nonwhite, poor juvenile offenders, By Erik Eckholm, August 31, 2016, New York Times: “When Dequan Jackson had his only brush with the law, at 13, he tried to do everything right.  Charged with battery for banging into a teacher while horsing around in a hallway, he pleaded guilty with the promise that after one year of successful probation, the conviction would be reduced to a misdemeanor.  He worked 40 hours in a food bank. He met with an anger management counselor. He kept to an 8 p.m. curfew except when returning from football practice or church.  And he kept out of trouble. But Dequan and his mother, who is struggling to raise two sons here on wisps of income, were unable to meet one final condition: payment of $200 in court and public defender fees. For that reason alone, his probation was extended for what turned out to be 14 more months, until they pulled together the money at a time when they had trouble finding quarters for the laundromat…”

Court Fines and the Poor

Court costs can be crippling for low-income drivers, report says, Associated Press, May 31, 2016, Roanoke Times: “Kimberly Hopkins was so strapped for cash, she was selling her blood plasma to make ends meet. When a court socked her with a $25 monthly payment for a speeding ticket and court costs, the divorced mother of four simply couldn’t pay. ‘Sometimes I just did not have it at the end of the month,’ the 44-year-old Amherst County resident said.  So she defaulted on the payment plan and her driver’s license was suspended. She continued driving, out of necessity, and got caught, resulting in more fines and costs. Her total court obligation swelled to about $1,500 — an impossible sum for Hopkins, who by then was unemployed and unable to legally drive anywhere to apply for jobs…”

Court Fines and Debt

After Ferguson, states struggle to crack down on court debt, By Sophie Quinton, August 26, 2015, Stateline: “Say you’re caught driving 10 miles an hour over the posted speed limit in California. The state’s base fine for that offense is $35. But then the state adds an additional $40. The county adds $28. There’s an $8 fee to fund emergency medical services, a $20 fee to fund DNA testing, a $40 court operations fee and more. In total, that relatively minor moving violation just cost you $238.00. For years, state and local governments have attached additional fees and costs to everything from speeding tickets to parole supervision. The extra assessments are supposed to pay for court operations and associated justice system programs, such as DNA testing. According to a growing body of research, however, they also can trap poor people in debt, and corrupt law enforcement and the courts…”

Driver’s License Suspensions

  • Driver’s license suspensions push poor deeper into poverty, report says, By Lee Romney, April 8, 2015, Los Angeles Times: “Traffic-court fines layered with escalating fees and penalties have led to driver’s license suspensions for 4.2 million Californians — or one in six drivers — pushing many low-income people deeper into poverty, a report released Wednesday by a coalition of legal aid groups found. The report calls for, among other things, an end to license suspensions for unpaid tickets and a reduction in fees and penalties that raise a $100 fine to $490 — or $815 if the initial deadline to pay is missed…”
  • Economic disparity is seen in California driver’s license suspensions, By Timothy Williams, April 8, 2015, New York Times: “Drivers in California who are unable to pay traffic fines for minor infractions are frequently having their licenses suspended by traffic courts — a policy that has had a disproportionate impact on poor and working-class people, according to a study released Wednesday. In an Alameda County traffic court case, for example, a $25 ticket given to a motorist who had failed to update the home address on her driver’s license within the state law’s allotted 10 days led a traffic court judge to suspend her license when she was unable to pay the fine…”