Wednesday, December 25, 2013

"Are There No Prisons?"

Scrooge had nothing on modern bureaucracies:
More and more, courts are dragging people in for fines and fees that have ballooned due to interest imposed on the initial sums. Some owe money to the public defender's office for the representation they received during their time in court. Others incur hundreds of dollars in fees while they're incarcerated -- for everything from toilet paper to the beds inmates sleep on.

The tab for the average offender could be as low as $250 or as high as $4,000. Both the ACLU and Brennan have been targeting big states with multiple jurisdictions they say are flouting U.S. Supreme Court rulings in 1970, 1971 and 1983. Those rulings essentially say courts cannot extend or impose a jail sentence for unpaid fines and fees if individuals do not have the ability to pay.

At the very least, according to the high court, the courts must inquire and assess whether a person is indigent and might benefit from an alternative method of payment, like community service, before sentencing.

"Even though a lot of jurisdictions do have statutes on the books that allow judges to waive fines and fees, it doesn't always happen," explained Lauren Brooke-Eisen, counsel for the Brennan Center's Justice Program.

Much of the time, probation or the conviction itself will hinder individuals from finding employment (Brennan estimates that some 60 percent are still unemployed a year after leaving jail). But another incarceration over debt could either ruin the job they managed to get or make it even harder to find one.

Many jurisdictions have taken to hiring private collection/probation companies to go after debtors, giving them the authority to revoke probation and incarcerate if they can't pay. Research into the practice has found that private companies impose their own additional surcharges. Some 15 private companies have emerged to run these services in the South, including the popular Judicial Correction Services (JCS).
A system in dire straits often takes out its frustrations on the people...

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