(Reuters) – A growing body of research has revealed the predatory nature of municipal fines and fees in towns across the country since the U.S. Justice Department concluded in 2015 that Ferguson, Missouri, was using its police department largely as a collection agency for the city.
Similar practices recently came to light in small-town Brookside, Alabama, after news reports laid out a municipal scheme involving the police chief and court system to arrest people, often for no reason, and apparently in order to generate revenue from fines and fees.
Much of the criticism of “taxation by citation” practices has focused on the injustice of government officials knowingly extracting money and resources from people by unfairly thrusting them into the criminal justice system.
Now, the results of a new, first-of-its-kind study show that the policies don’t accomplish their stated goals even if fairly applied, and that, more often, court fees simply "create a pure criminalization of poverty," according to researchers.
The study was published Feb. 20 in the American Sociological Review, a peer-reviewed journal. Authors include Devah Pager, a Harvard University sociologist who died in 2018 and was best known for her work demonstrating race discrimination in hiring; Rebecca Goldstein, a law professor at the University of California-Berkeley; and Bruce Western, sociology professor and director of the Justice Lab at Columbia University.
In a randomized experiment, researchers selected more than 600 people who were convicted of criminal misdemeanors in Oklahoma County. Researchers paid off all current and prior court fees for half of the group. Misdemeanors can include low-level offenses like drug possession, trespass and disorderly conduct.
In Oklahoma County, a misdemeanor conviction “generates over a thousand dollars in court-related fees,” according to the study. That figure includes fees unrelated to one’s case – like having to pay a victim compensation fund fee if convicted for drug possession, for example.
All the study participants were represented by the Oklahoma County Public Defender’s Office.
Oklahoma County chief public defender Robert Ravitz told me he has voiced opposition to the amount of fines and fees in the county for years. Oklahoma County courts are better on the issue than many others in the state because they don't jail people for non-payment, and because Oklahomans in other jurisdictions have to pay for time spent in jail awaiting trial, Ravitz added.
The idea behind the experiment was to test some of the rationales behind the fees – whether they enforce accountability, deter future unlawful behavior, and efficiently shift costs from taxpayers to defendants and “users” of the criminal justice system.
Researchers found that people whose fines and fees were paid off were no more likely to face new criminal justice contact — such as being charged, booked into jail or convicted — after a year compared with those whose debt wasn’t relieved.
On the other hand, they were significantly less likely to face new court actions, such as having a warrant issued and being assessed additional debt or referred to private debt collectors. And, despite significant collection efforts, less than 5% of outstanding debt was paid back to the court by those who didn’t have their debt relieved.
The results likely generalize to other jurisdictions, the authors wrote.
Joanna Weiss, co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, told me the findings are unsurprising but exciting. The organization works to end the use of abusive fines and fees across the country.
“What it really shows is what a lose-lose scenario court fines and particularly fees are, and that when we stop funding government and turn to regressive tax schemes it really doesn’t work,” said Weiss, adding that the study represents the "gold standard of research" because it was a randomized controlled trial.
The study provides strong evidence that court fines and fees have no specific deterrent effect on crime and ultimately provide little benefit to governments – all while trapping many low-income people into a cycle of court involvement and state punishment. It supports arguments that so-called “user” fees in the criminal justice system are inefficient, counter-productive and should be abolished.
Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater declined a request for comment on the study's findings. The National District Attorneys Association didn't respond to a request for comment.
California became the first state to end the collection of those administrative fees in 2020, and Washington state is currently considering legislation that would provide local courts funding from the state, and eliminate a number of court fees.
Fees in the criminal justice process have proliferated since the 1980s, and especially so after the 2008 recession, as localities struggled with decreased funding for vital government functions.
Just 10 states imposed probation supervision fees in 1980, for example, but that number tripled by 1990, according to a 2017 law review article by Nora Demleitner, a law professor and president of St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland.
The randomized study released this month cites 2010 research showing that 24% of people in state prison were subject to fines and fees in 1991, compared with 66% by 2004.
Since 2008, nearly every state has raised court fees or created new ones, and expanded the scope of offenses that trigger fines, according to a 2019 report by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.
After the investigation in Ferguson, the Justice Department in 2016 called on local courts to ensure their procedures for imposing fines and fees were constitutional. Then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch warned officials at the time that the “criminalization of poverty” erodes faith in government.
Today, nonpayment of fees can result in incarceration in 47 out of 50 states, researchers wrote in a recent study.
Studies over that period have shown that systems of criminal court fees across the country work against the goal of rehabilitation and reentry into society, and actively harm people — especially the poor and people of color.
The 2019 report by the Brennan Center for Justice focused on how much government spends to administer fees and fines, and how much of the total amount went unpaid. It concluded that court fees are also an ineffective means of raising revenue, largely because courts spend millions on in-court costs and proceedings related to fee compliance, and on jailing people for failure-to-pay.
The results of the randomized and controlled experiment released this February strengthen those conclusions and make even clearer the need for abolishment and reform.
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.
Hassan Kanu writes about access to justice, race, and equality under law. Kanu, who was born in Sierra Leone and grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland, worked in public interest law after graduating from Duke University School of Law. After that, he spent five years reporting on mostly employment law. He lives in Washington, D.C. Reach Kanu at [email protected]
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Court fees can criminalize poverty, major study finds – Reuters