THE BLOG

Never Mind What the Constitution Says, Our Prison System Has Run Amok

06/24/2014 02:56 pm ET | Updated Aug 24, 2014

The practice of charging fines and billing fees to defendants dates back to the 1970s. The number of people behind bars has increased 700% by 2010. In the last 30+ years, prisons and courtrooms have become more crowded and the cost of running them has skyrocketed from $6 billion to more than $67 billion a year.

Taxpayers are paying thousands of dollars to send people to prisons when the fines are less than the cost of incarceration. Some counties even brag about the amount of money raised from fines, but they are using false math. What they are spending on jailing prisoners, who shouldn't be incarcerated, is costing all of us. When the fees of the poor are one of the state's top revenue producers, there is something wrong.

These practices along with the privatization of prisons create the business model that the more people convicted and housed in for-profit facilities, the more money that can be made.

In 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the historic case of Miranda v. Arizona, declaring that whenever a person is taken into police custody, before being questioned he or she must be told of the Fifth Amendment right not to make any self-incriminating statements. The Miranda warning, which is used by police when arresting someone states:

"You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to speak to an attorney and to have an attorney present during any questioning. If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be provided for you at government expense."

NPR found that defendants today are charged for many government services in more than 80% of our state prisons, some of which are guaranteed rights by our Constitution:

• 43 states and DC billed defendants for the public defender
• 41 states can charge prisoners for room and board
• 44 states can bill prisoners for their probation and parole supervision
• 49 states charge a fee for the electronic monitoring devices that some defendants are ordered to wear.

The Gideon v Wainwright decision of 1963 mandated state courts to provide counsel for criminal defendants who could not afford it. Debtor's prisons were abolished in the United States in the early 1800s and the Supreme Court has ruled it is unconstitutional to jail someone for failing to pay a debt.

In 1981 Danny Bearden broke into a trailer and was sentenced to two years in prison...not for the crime, but because he couldn't pay the $750 fine. The U.S. Supreme Court, in Bearden v Georgia, said you can't jail someone because they are too poor to pay their fine.

In 1991, 25% of inmates said they owed court-imposed costs, restitution, fines and fees. By 2004, that number had climbed to 66% according to the Justice Department. The Brennan Center found that of the 15 states with the largest number of prisoners, 13 of them charge fees for using public defenders. Why are these Supreme Court rulings not being enforced?

Today, some states are waiving fees for indigent defendants, while others are offering to set up payment plans that include extra fees, penalties and interest. This cycle insures that many will never get the debt paid back as their fines continue to grow because of the interest and penalties that are attached.

Justice, in our present penal system, is illusive. If an impoverished person is late on a payment, the harsh reality is that in some states he can lose his driver's license or food stamps, keeping him from seeking gainful employment or eating.

Many states also block ex-offenders from receiving the right to vote again until all fees are paid -- making the fee effectively a poll tax.

While the poor are imprisoned, the rich are often set free. A judge in Texas recently ordered that Ethan Couch -- who drove drunk, crashed, and killed four people, go to a lock-down residential treatment facility. His explanation was that Couch was a victim of "affluenza" -- the product of wealthy, privileged parents who never set limits for the boy. In our upside down justice system, even though four people were killed and two were injured, the driver was proclaimed the victim.

Not only is our present system unjust, but it is also costly. A 2010 Annual Report filed with the SEC, and the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) stated: "The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by . . . leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices . . ."

The guilty need to be punished, but the focus should be on rehabilitation, not generating massive profits. The guilty should not go free because they are indigent, but neither should the innocent suffer because they are poor.