THE BLOG

Piling on Criminal Fees

05/20/2015 09:41 am ET | Updated May 20, 2016

Criminal courts sometime function as fee-generating machines. Take, for example, a homeless woman in Ferguson, Missouri who owed the city $152 in parking tickets. When she paid only a portion of the amount due, she was arrested twice and spent six days in jail. The court imposed more fines and late fees totaling hundreds of dollars. To date, she has paid $550 in fines and fees to the City of Ferguson, yet still owes the city over $500. This is just one example of mercenary criminal justice at work in state courts all over the country.

The problem here is not any single criminal fee; the problem is how they stack up to create injustice. That's why we are calling for a statewide Commission on Criminal Fees.

In a recent law review article, "Mercenary Criminal Justice," we chronicled the historically central role of fee-generation in U.S. criminal justice systems, a tendency that became even more pronounced as a result of the recent fiscal crisis. We call this system "mercenary" because the revenues affect the enforcement decisions of actors in the justice system, who start to depend on that revenue, and put their own job security above the job of doing individual justice. As the Justice Department's report on Ferguson noted, city officials there asked the police and courts to increase ticket collection, explicitly to increase their revenue, basically treating minor criminal offenders as ATM machines. This mistreatment is all the more troubling when the fees and fines land most heavily on racial minorities and the poor, as they routinely do in Ferguson and elsewhere.

The beneficiaries of the revenue hail from diverse and powerful institutions. Courts, crime labs, prosecutors, and even public defenders all see the dollar signs and make their requests. What's the harm, after all, in asking for another $100 from an arrestee, convict, or probationer?

And it is not only government employees who have their hands out: private sector actors (with profit motives) have increasingly gotten a piece of the action. Courts, for instance, ask private contractors to collect fees and fines, allowing them to add their own service charges to the total bill. Private companies, moreover, have been active in probation services. More recently, the American Legislative Exchange Council (or ALEC) started promoting a variation on this theme -- called "post-conviction bail" -- that empowers private bail bond dealers to monitor defendant compliance with post-release conditions. If the released inmate does not comply, the dealer tracks him down and collects a new financial penalty.

Any one of these fees or fines might be a reasonable part of a non-prison punishment, promoting public safety and the interests of defendants alike. The trouble comes when nobody minds the total effects of all these fees on individuals. Taken together, even the most modest and well-justified fees can trap the indigent in the control of criminal courts, always paying but never paying their debt down to zero.

We believe that a statewide Commission on Criminal Fees can see the big picture and prevent this piling-on effect. Before authorizing a new fee to support the state crime lab, for instance, the Commission would ask how that fee interacts with the public defender's application fee, the probation supervision fee, and all the other fees currently imposed on individuals ensnared in the justice system.

Because of its system-wide vantage point, a commission could inventory and assess the propriety of current fees, and monitor their use going forward. In doing so, a commission would lend much-needed order and transparency to fee-generation and lessen the risks they present to individual offenders and the integrity of the criminal justice system as a whole.