Fine System Is Designed For Defeat
One of the few policy bright spots in North Carolina these days is the developing consensus that the state needs to reassess its criminal justice policies, from tweaking sentencing guidelines to focusing far more resources on re-entry programs to keep people from coming back to prison once they leave.
Gov. Bev Perdue created the StreetSafe Task Force last year to reduce prison recidivism and work on re-entry issues. The General Assembly created the Joint Select Committee on Ex-Offender Integration that is -discussing similar ideas.
Legislative leaders in both parties are interested in the work of the Justice Project of the Council of State Governments that was instrumental in helping Texas reduce its prison spending and crime rate in the past few years with smarter sentencing and criminal justice policy.
But a new report from the Brennan Center for Justice released recently shows that lawmakers will have to address an increasingly common budget practice to make real headway in criminal justice policy, the habit of raising more revenue from hiking fees and courts costs on people convicted of crimes.
It seems like it makes sense to increase what some consider user fees for people caught up in the criminal justice system. And it's certainly perceived as less politically risky than raising taxes or increasing fees on businesses or consumers.
But the Brennan Center report, "Criminal Justice Debt: A Barrier to Re-entry," shows that imposing higher and higher fees is actually counterproductive and may cost more in the long run by increasing recidivism rates as it becomes far more difficult for offenders to get back on their feet when they are released.
The study looks at 15 states, including North Carolina, and found that 14 of them have some version of what the report call poverty penalties, late fees, interest payments and high collection fees for people who are unable to pay the charges the courts and correction system imposes.
North Carolina is one of the states that charges the poor for the public defender that's assigned to their case if they cannot afford a lawyer of their own. Defendants are assessed a $50 fee and are then responsible for the value of the defense services provided, which is $75 an hour plus additional fees and expenses. And North Carolina is one of three states in the study that don't allow defendants who can't pay to work off the debt.
In recent years North Carolina has not only increased the costs of court, but began charging a $25 late fee for failure to pay a fine or court costs on time and doubled the fine for the failure to appear in court.
There is an installment plan available for people who cannot pay their total fines and court costs, but there's a charge to even set up the plan. That's not much help to people who didn't have any money before they were arrested.
North Carolina also often suspends the driver's licenses of people behind in their criminal justice debt payments, meaning they could lose their jobs and then be even less likely to pay. Problems paying the debt can also end up ruining an offender's credit, making it more difficult to find a job or decent housing.
It adds up to a system that's designed to fail, and while not raising any real money in the long run.
The report recommends a series of steps for the state to take, including at a minimum a -moratorium on new fees and fines until there's a study of existing ones and what impact they have on ex-offenders and their communities.
It seems like the least policymakers can do. Nobody wins when there's a revolving door in our prison system.
Chris Fitzsimon is executive director of N.C. Policy Watch. Contact him at email@example.com.
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