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Getting blood from a stone

High fees, fines imposed on criminals often perpetuate the cycle of poverty and crime

iStock image used with permission.

One of the biggest detriments to criminal offenders’ successful reentry into society is the amount of debt imposed on them through state fees or other fines related to their crime.

The issue is examined in a recent report, “Criminal Justice Debt: A Barrier to Reentry,” published this month by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

The report examines practices in the 15 states with the highest prison populations, of which New York is listed as fourth. The 15 states account for more than 60 percent of all state criminal filings in the country.

“New York is better than many, in our view,” said Rebekah Diller, deputy director of the Justice Program at the Brennan Center, who co-authored the report with two other attorneys. “It’s not quite as focused on fee revenue from the indigent, but there are a number of problems still, and there are offenses for which the amount of fees and surcharges pile up to be really unmanageable amounts.”

New York charges a surcharge on every offense, including vehicle and traffic violations. As an example, Diller cited alcohol-related offenses. According to Magill’s Law Manual, the fine for a misdemeanor conviction ranges from $500 to $1,000, plus a mandatory surcharge of $400 if it goes through a town or village court and $395 in city court. Offenders also are assessed a $250 annual fee for a driver responsibility assessment for three years.

More fees are imposed under a new law that took effect in August, requiring those convicted of driving while intoxicated, including first-time offenders, to install an ignition interlock device on their vehicle, at a cost of between $85 and $125 in Monroe County. A monthly fee ranging from $74.95 to $92 also is charged when the device is in use, depending on which version is available.

Disproportionate effects

Monroe County Public Defender Timothy P. Donaher said some people have to sell their cars, which impedes their ability to get to or find work. He called it another example of a well-intended law with unintended consequences that disproportionately affects the poor.

“The most important finding of the report and … the finding society should be most concerned about is the barrier to reentry that these fees impose,” he said. “These fees are substantial and they do act as a barrier to reentry. I would hope that we want these persons, after they have paid their debt to society, not to have these barriers placed before them.”
Donaher said judges are able to waive fines for indigent defendants, but not state surcharges.

Another problem he and Diller cited are New York’s suspended license laws. Donaher said a lot of his office’s clients end up with suspended driver’s licenses because they can’t afford to pay a fine such as a speeding ticket, but continue to drive because they need to get to work. Third-degree aggravated unlicensed operation charges are very common among poor populations, and result in additional fines and charges they simply cannot pay.

“They really get caught in a vicious cycle of owing money and not being able to pay it,” Diller said.

Long-term impacts

Diller said it took about a year to research and draft the report, which is being circulated to lawmakers and other people involved in making court policy or working on reentry advocacy.

“The target audience is state legislators and policymakers who, often at the 11th hour, will see the opportunity to add a new fee as a revenue-raising device,” Diller said. “We wanted them to think twice about the cumulative effects and long-term impact on people with convictions before adding new fees.”

She agreed many people may not be sympathetic to the fact that some criminals cannot afford to pay for the crimes they committed, but added that some are concerned such fees are not being imposed for any purpose other than to raise revenue.

“When we make it harder to reenter society, it’s not in anybody’s benefit,” Diller said. “We don’t want to push people back on the path to prison.”

Donaher agreed some states attempt to balance their budgets on the backs of poor people. He said the ultimate costs of the criminal justice system is something that should be borne by society and that it is not realistic to impose expense on offenders with no ability to pay.

Bryan D. Hetherington, chief counsel at the Empire Justice Center, puts it another way: “The criminal justice system is not providing a service to the defendant. It’s providing a service to the rest of us. Essentially, the criminal justice system is supposed to keep all of us, as citizens, safe by providing … a deterrent against illegal conduct and providing consequences for people who engage in those conducts.

“We, not the defendants, are the beneficiaries of the system,” he said. “It is perfectly fair for all of us to pay the cost of a system that keeps us safe.”

Hetherington said he has no problem asking people with sufficient means, like Bernie Madoff, to contribute to the cost of his incarceration.

“What I have a problem with is that we’re going to use these surcharges — universally applied without regard to economic circumstances — to meet a tiny cost of the criminal justice system,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s not like these are providing huge revenue sources to the state, compared to the cost of the criminal justice system.”

True costs?

Alan Rosenthal, counsel and co-director of the Justice Strategies, a division of the Center for Alternatives in Syracuse, said one number his team has been able to ascertain is the cost of conviction, which is outlined in the center’s 2007 report “Sentencing for Dollars: The Financial Consequences of a Criminal Conviction.”

He cites one example in which a felony DWI conviction can cost $7,670 when all the fees are added up during a five-year probation period.

“For the average citizen, that probably comes as a bit of a surprise,” Rosenthal said. “That’s a heavy debt load, particularly when you think it may affect the person’s credit history and the ability to get a job. I think the key component is we have, over the last five or 10 years, become more and more aware of the importance that successful reentry plays in public safety, lowering recidivism rates and so on.”

Jason Hoge, director of the Reentry Program at Monroe County Legal Assistance Center, said offenders often find themselves discriminated against following their release, even though it is illegal in New York to not hire someone because of a criminal record unless the job is directly related to the conviction, such as a convicted pedophile being hired to work with children or a DWI offender being hired to drive a bus.

Lack of employment also is the top contributor to rates of recidivism.

“The guy can’t pay these debts if they wanted to because they can’t get work,” he said, noting 80 percent of employers nationwide perform criminal background checks.

A recent survey of the Society for Human Resource Management confirms the figure.

“There should be some financial accountability, but it shouldn’t be done on the backs of people who are already broke,” Hoge said. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense.”