Define That Term #48
Define That Term #49

Re-Pay Your Debt To Society--Literally

There was an interesting article in the New York Times yesterday about the many fees assessed against criminal defendants by the courts.  Fees are levied against those charged with a crime at nearly every stage of the process:

Almost every encounter with the criminal justice system these days can give rise to a fee. There are application fees and co-payments for public defenders. Sentences include court costs, restitution and contributions to various funds. In Washington State, people convicted of certain crimes are also charged $100 so their DNA can be put in a database.

Private probation companies charge $30 to $40 a month for supervision. Halfway houses charge for staying in them. People sentenced to community service are required to buy $15 insurance policies for every week they work. Criminals on probation and parole wear global positioning devices that monitor their whereabouts — for a charge of as much as $16 a day.

An argument made by proponents of this system is that it's only fair that the costs to society are offset by charging fees to those accused and convicted of crimes.  Concerns raised by those who oppose the fees are that the system is forcing those who can't afford to pay for an attorney to otherwise pay through added charges.  Another argument is that the government is essentially forcing people to "buy back" their right to vote, since in many states, the right to vote is regained only upon re-payment of the fees in full.

Extremely high interest rates are charged on the fees, making them even more difficult to pay back.  The article described a number of specific cases, including this one:

In 2003, for instance, Sabrina Byrd, a 27-year-old single mother, was ordered to pay $852 for failing to leash and vaccinate her dog in College Park, Ga. Too poor to pay, she was placed on probation while she made 10 monthly installments, along with a monthly fee to a probation company of $39 — about half of the fine. When she fell behind and failed to contact the company, a judge revoked her probation and sentenced her to 25 days in jail.

While I understand the rationale behind some of the fees, I think that things have gone too far.  I find the fees assessed against those who are provided with a public defender to be particularly reprehensible and am also troubled by the effect that the inability to pay has upon the right to vote.

The ACLU has filed a lawsuit that challenges the effect of the fees upon the right to vote.  Perhaps another lawsuit is in order regarding the back door fees charged for public defenders.


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Fines and charges for those convicted are reasonable. I agree that the interest rates should be low too. The dog case raises the question of whether fines are appropriate in lieu of incarceration or fair when the impact of the fine varies according to your income. I think NJ makes you pay the cost of the test on your controlled substances if you are convicted. And the cost of your DNA test and so on if you're a convicted rapist. I always liked that.


There should be a discount on the DNA and Controlled Substance tests if the hood pleads guilty in a timely manner.

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