The True Costs of Legal Fines

by FASPE Fellows Carson Thomas and Shannon Joyce Prince

Acting ethically requires thinking along multiple axes and considering the well-being of all stakeholders.  We are reminded of this when considering a story that a local news station presented to its audience as a "feel-good" tale: a Kansas municipal court is allowing those who owe legal fees to buy school supplies for donation and be credited for the amount of the donation.  Those who spend $25 dollars have $50 of legal debt removed.

As well intentioned as this seems to be, the plan raises ethical questions: Should school systems, and other municipal services, be so underfunded that they rely on citizens being punished to meet their fiscal needs?  And, more acutely, does this "warm and fuzzy" story whitewash the injustice of legal fees: namely that such fees are not equitably levied, with the poor and people of color disproportionately likely to receive them?  

Throughout the country, this pattern of disproportionate impact has led some reformers to accuse states and municipalities of criminalizing poverty.  The Appeal provides a useful summary of how fines and fees quickly mount as states impose onerous fines and fees for even minor misdemeanors, leading to further penalties, driver's license suspension, and jail time.  Despite the Supreme Court's ruling in Beardon v. Georgia that limited states' ability to imprison a person for the failure to pay legal fines, many states continue the practice.

In some communities, people charged with a crime are billed for their own prosecution.  There are efforts to reform this system. But where local governments rely on legal fines and fees to fund a broad range of services (like school supplies), reform is difficult. Many lawmakers also resist reform because the system remains a tempting political tool. To give one example: the Florida legislature passed a bill mandating that felons---recently re-enfranchised by a successful constitutional amendment---must first pay their court-ordered financial obligations before they regain the right to vote.  As reported here by CBS, this bill has been decried as an attempt to suppress Democratic-leaning minority voters. When legal fees and fines are not only onerous, but also disconnected from the court costs they are supposed to reimburse, the system can quickly go from paying for pencils to imposing a thinly disguised poll tax.  

Read the full article from CBS News.