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Get Out of Jail, Now Pay Up: Your Fines Are Waiting

Eliminating monetary penalties that accompany conviction may help ex-convicts get on their feet.

When you're convicted of a crime in America, it's not just prison time you may face—there are fines, fees, and other cash penalties, too. And when you get out, they'll be waiting. Plus interest.

The plight of "Kathie" symbolizes everything that's wrong with this system, one that heaps a debt burden onto ex-convicts who don't have the means to pay. Kathie (a pseudonym) was a 49-year-old ex-convict at the time University of Washington sociologist Alexes Harris interviewed her in 2009. She was sharing a three-bedroom home with three of her four children, her estranged husband, and his father.

Kathie left prison owing $11,000, but the sum had grown to $20,000 because of collection surcharges, private collection fees, and a 12 percent interest rate. She had a low-paying job that didn't leave her a prayer of paying off the whole sum. "It seems like one of those challenges that are insurmountable," she told Harris. "It’s like a paraplegic trying to climb Mount Everest."

Harris writes about Kathie and other hard-luck cases in Pound of Flesh: Monetary Sanctions as Punishment for the Poor, a book set to be published next month by the Russell Sage Foundation. Legal debt, Harris writes, "represents the difference between being housed or unstably housed, taking daily AIDS medication or going untreated, accessing or failing to access a public shower if homeless, and being free to move forward someday into a healthier relationship or remaining in an abusive one."

"The story of my research—the story that must be told—is that our 21st century criminal justice system stains people’s lives forever," she writes. "The permanent stain results not just from a criminal conviction and the related societal stigma but also from the financial debt, constant surveillance, and related punishment incurred by monetary sanctions."

Legal debt that entangles people for life was a factor in the widespread anger toward the judicial system that exploded in Ferguson, Mo., after the police shooting death of Michael Brown, as I wrote about here. The issue has also arisen in other strife-torn American cities, most famously Baltimore

The U.S. Supreme Court in 1983 ruled that defendants cannot be jailed for nonpayment unless it was "willful," but courts have wide latitude to decide what that means. This March, the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division issued a nine-page "Dear Colleague" letter that focused on illegal enforcement and collection of fees and fines. "Individuals may confront escalating debt; face repeated, unnecessary incarceration for nonpayment despite posing no danger to the community; lose their jobs; and become trapped in cycles of poverty that can be nearly impossible to escape," the government wrote.

In her first interview about the new book, Harris said that she tried to understand the problem better by gathering data from five counties in Washington state (where Kathie lived) and whose laws she says resemble those in many other states. 

The average felony defendant surveyed owes $9,204 in fines, fees, and court-ordered restitution. Those who said they were making regular payments on their debt paid an average of $31.25 a month. Most of the people surveyed found their debt was either flat or growing, despite the payments, because of accumulating interest. 

One prosecutor, when asked how a homeless defendant could possibly pay, told Harris, "... there's good money to be made in standing along the street corner and asking," she wrote.

Harris is collaborating with professors in seven other states—California, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, and Texas. Each plans to drill down into court practices in three counties and three municipalities in their respective states. "There are no large data sets, so you have to get into the courtrooms to see what's happening," Harris says.

Her recommendation to the Washington legislature is to eliminate all payments required of defendants except for restitution to the victim. Even that, she said, should be limited to harm that hasn't already been covered by insurance. She also says interest shouldn't be charged until people get out of prison. (Some jurisdictions will waive pre-release interest on petition.)

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