by Lauren-Brooke Eisen, Senior Counsel, Brennan Center for Justice
Many jurisdictions are dependent on municipal and judicial fines to fund prosecutors, public defenders, clerks and courts. The Justice Department’s March 2015 report on practices in Ferguson, Mo. is a telling example. Ferguson police and courts, the report found, operated, “not with the primary goal of administering justice or protecting the rights of the accused, but of maximizing revenue.” Soon after the report’s release, Ferguson’s police chief, municipal judge and city manager all stepped down. Such practices are not limited to Ferguson as cash strapped cities and states turn ever increasingly towards low-income individuals to fund the criminal justice system.
In fact, an estimated 10 million people owe more than $50 billion in debt as a result of their involvement in the criminal justice system. How did this happen? Well, one reason is that as the country’s criminal justice costs skyrocketed, and the burden to fund the system fell on the system’s users. As noted in a recent Brennan Center report, the country’s criminal justice costs — mostly policing, jails, prisons and courts — rose from $35 billion in 1982 to more than $265 billion in 2012 — a growth of over 650 percent. It’s worth noting that at least 80 percent of state court defendants are indigent, and cannot afford to pay for their own lawyers. Nonetheless, fees are imposed for a wide range of services, including courts, jails, prisons and diversion and probation programs. In Florida, for example, it costs $50 to apply for a public defender if one is charged with a misdemeanor and $100 for a felony.
States and local governments are crafting creative solutions to reduce the burden of criminal justice debt on its citizens.
To help alleviate the problem of imposing fees and fines that will never be collected, and to clear out their backlogs of warrants, some courts have adopted amnesty programs for low-level offenses. Defendants show up for court, and their fines and fees are forgiven or significantly reduced.