In 1983, the Supreme Court ruled that no one could be imprisoned for being too poor to pay fines or fees. The decision stated that the only people who could be sentenced were those who have money and “intentionally” fail to pay. The Court’s lack of specificity apparently has allowed a system that punishes poverty to develop.
An example of this is when a person is accused of a misdemeanor and is unable to pay a $500 bail, as is the case of 79 percent of the people who were arrested in New York in 2010. After spending a few days in jail, the individual is released and then receives a bill for expenses such as lodging and food, a fee for the attorney ‒ who is not appointed free of charge as is commonly believed, ‒ another one for the district attorney and another for a drug test, if necessary, among other charges.
The defendant could be sent back to jail if he or she is unable to pay, or the judge may assign a payment plan with interest, which leaves the person vulnerable to more fees and late payment charges. If the defendant fails to make the payments, the warrant issued against him or her will also be added to their tab.
This system quietly started to take shape in the 80s, as a result of a combination of tax cuts and budget deficits, and as voters demanded a tough stance against crime from the government. Consequently, more than just a form of punishment, fines and fees became a way to finance the criminal justice system.
A state-by-state analysis made by National Public Radio found that people who are taken to jail can be charged “pay to stay” fees in at least 41 states ‒ including California and New York, ‒ and 43 states can charge defendants for parole supervision.
Now that justice reform enjoys bipartisan support, it is time to change a model that turns poverty into yet another crime. The White House is allocating funding toward “restructuring” the fines and fees system. This should be the first step in upholding a much-disregarded Supreme Court ruling.