Thanks to an overhaul of legal cases that leave public defendants drowning in work, individuals charged with crimes are now drowning in court fees and facing jail time far more severe than is warranted.
Courts are scrambling to rake in defendants’ money by tacking on extra fees and charging interest, leaving people with lower incomes who are incapable of paying these inordinate amounts no choice but to compensate by accepting extensive jail time.
Public defenders in Missouri, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky have responded to modern avalanches of defendants in need of legal help by refusing to take on new clients. Louisiana especially struggles with funding crises thanks to the fact that most funding for their public defense comes from court fees and fines–an unreliable, mercurial source of income for a citizen’s legal right to a public attorney.
Numerous cases demonstrating these discrepancies between crime and punishment have been uncovered over the past year, like the case of Tom Barrett, who was sentenced to 12 months in prison for stealing one can of $2 beer after he couldn’t scrape together the money to pay court fees.
Other eyebrow-raising cases include that of 19-year-old Kyle Dewitt, who caught a fish out-of-season and was sentenced to three days in prison; and Iraq war veteran Stephen Papa, who spent 22 days in jail for public intoxication because the $25 he had to his name couldn’t cover the cost of court fees.
In these cases, the jail-time punishment is not a direct persecution for the original crime; rather, it is a manufactured, mandatory alternative for poorer defendants without the means to support themselves, let alone pay court fees. As a result, modern inmates are persecuted minorities, mentally ill individuals, and lower-class citizens, all of whom have no financial option but to accept jail time as an alternative to these inflated court fees.
In states like Louisiana, public defenders and prosecutors have incentive to push for inordinate fines and court fees; without this income, the public defense system loses its funding, and the system’s foundation collapses. Similar issues also reach the national level, as well, with 41 states that can charge room and board for jail and prison stays, 44 states that can bill offenders for their own probation and parole supervision, and 43 states, plus the District of Columbia, where it’s legal to bill defendants for their public defender.
These modern legal and fiscal discrepancies are giving lower-class citizens incentives to skip hiring an attorney altogether, leaving their legal fate in their own hands, or else carry around years’ worth of debt from court-appointed lawyers. Without a redesign of these legal structures that allow for punishment alternatives that leave money out of the equation–like court-mandated community service, for example–incarceration rates and personal debt will only increase among citizens with lower incomes who find themselves in U.S. courtrooms.