Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Cash Register Justice

Increasingly, states are turning to so-called “user fees” and surcharges to underwrite criminal justice costs and close budget gaps. In this report, we focus on Florida, a state that relies so heavily on fees to fund its courts that observers have coined a term for it – “cash register justice.” Since 1996, Florida added more than 20 new categories of financial obligations for criminal defendants and, at the same time, eliminated most exemptions for those who cannot pay. The fee increases have not been accompanied by any evident consideration of their hidden costs: the cumulative impacts on those required to pay, the ways in which the debt can lead to new offenses, and the costs to counties, clerks and courts of collection mechanisms that fail to exempt those unable to pay.

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Executive Summary
Full Report

This research illustrates a growing trend in Florida and around the country - place a greater share of the costs of the criminal justice system on the backs of offenders. This idea takes many forms, such as charging for days in jail, health care, probation/parole supervision fees, or exploiting inmates and their families in many ways such as charging exorbitant rates for phone calls. And of course the idea is appealing to many who like the idea of making offenders pay even more for their offenses.

The basic problem with this approach is that it amounts to a tax on poor people. We can debate the fairness of this tax, but their is no getting around the practicality and the impact. As the report illustrates, new fines and fees impose problems of agencies who have to collect them. But an even more fundamental problem is the source of the money to pay the fines and fees - by definition, poor people have limited incomes. Taking more of it to support the criminal justice system imposes a greater impact on the poor and their families. Offenders are are risk for the new "debtors prison" or committing new crimes to pay for the old ones.

The other problem with this approach is that agencies have a new financial incentive to criminalize behavior. Like the drug war and asset forfeiture, new fines and fees provide new revenue sources that are not bound by the budget process, thus creating a new problem of accountability. 

Adding to the problems of poor people is not the way to administer the criminal justice system nor to ensure successful re-entry into society. Cash register justice is just another example in a long list of bad policy decisions.

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