Journalists and human rights organizations have closely documented the correlation between poverty and prison time. The United States, largely as a result of its mass incarceration policies, boasts the largest prison population in the world, and a disproportionate segment of this population has lived beneath the poverty line. Moreover, researchers have demonstrated that convicted felons face severe limits on earning potential after being released –a trend that often inspires ruthless patterns of recidivism. Recently, however, attention has also been drawn to the ways in which the justice system exploits the poor in response to exceptionally minor offenses that do not warrant prison time.
The War on Crime of the 1970s and the War on Drugs of the 1980s launched a funneling of resources, financial and otherwise, to American law enforcement agencies and prisons in order to buttress policies of mass incarceration. However, the court system, particularly at the municipal level, did not benefit from such an influx of support. The result of this disparity has been what some have termed “an offender-funded justice system” that unfairly burdens America’s poorest citizens.
The story of Thomas Barrett is emblematic of this particular manifestation of wealth-based inequality in the justice system. Mr. Barrett, 53, was arrested in April of 2012 for the theft of a $2 can of beer from a convenience store in Augusta, Georgia. Homeless and unable to pay the $200 court fine, Mr. Barrett was placed under the probationary supervision of Sentinel Offender Services, a private firm, for 12 months. During this time, he was ordered to pay the fine in installments and to wear an electronic monitoring anklet.
Mr. Barrett could not afford to pay the $80 startup fee that Sentinel demanded for the monitoring device, and spent over a month in jail as a result. Upon his release from prison, Mr. Barrett was required to pay Sentinel $400 each month—$40 in probation fees and $360 for the cost of the monitoring anklet. He was able to secure nearly $300 each month by selling his blood plasma on a biweekly basis until his deteriorating health prevented him from doing so.
Despite his efforts, at the end of one year he found himself in nearly $1,000 of debt after his initial offense of stealing a $2 can of beer. At this point, Sentinel threatened to have him jailed once again—not for his original crime, but for his inability to meet the demands of the payment system.
Fortunately for Mr. Barrett, his case attracted the interest of an Augusta attorney who has been working to challenge the legality of Sentinel’s payment collection methods. But Mr. Barrett’s case is far from unusual. Mr. Barrett is one of thousands of American citizens who are faced with accumulating court fees and the threat of jail if they are unable to pay those fees. Someone in a better financial situation than Mr. Barrett, having committed the same crime, would have paid the $200 fine and moved on with his or her life. Compared to the case of Mr. Barrett, who had to sell his bodily fluids in order to keep up with steadily mounting fees, how has such a payment structure been able to perpetuate itself in a system that claims to promote equal justice for all?
In efforts to ensure a functioning court system in the absence of proper funding, municipal districts have resorted to imposing fines on those who become involved in the courts. Some of the fees imposed upon offenders include pre-trial incarceration fees, public defender application fees, and probation fees. For those have the resources to pay these fines, the financial burden imposed upon them is contained. But for those who cannot afford to pay for these mandatory “services”, additional fines are imposed, such as interest fees and late fees—in other words, poverty penalties.
Thus, not only do court-imposed fees unfairly burden the indigent in terms of income proportionality, but they also serve as a thinly-veiled poor tax for those who are forced to decide that feeding their children is more important than fulfilling a bureaucratic function. In these scenarios, the poorest of offenders often find themselves in vicious cycles of debt, not unlike Mr. Barrett did.
These consequences are not limited to those in the financial realm, which are certainly devastating in their own right. Public defender application fees often deter indigent offenders from seeking legal representation. In Gideon v. Wainwright (1963), the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that all persons, regardless of income, are entitled to legal representation in criminal cases. Nonetheless, people who cannot afford to pay these application fees often choose to forego legal counsel. This is a decision that can have brutal repercussions in a legal system that is built upon inaccessibility to the layperson. When Mr. Barrett was first arrested, he chose not to pay the $50 fee that was required to apply for a public defender. This is a decision, he says, that he now regrets.
The legality and ethics of offender-funded justice continue to be debated. The fiscal gap between law enforcement and the court system is undeniably vast and places a severe burden on municipal districts, leaving them with difficult decisions to make. However, what is immediately clear is that offender-funded justice in its current state unfairly disadvantages America’s poor. It is time for municipalities to recognize that this system, which consciously prevents lower-income Americans from receiving the fair and proportional punishment that they are entitled to, is neither a sustainable nor an acceptable solution.