Another interesting crime and justice article from The New York Times today (those guys are just cranking them out these days!). This article describes how some people end up in jail despite the use of a common combo of alternatives to incarceration: fines and probation.
Here's the problem: people get probation and/or a fine for a smaller-scale crime (speeding, driving without a license, etc.). But the person can't pay the court fees and/or fine, so they get sent to jail.
And in the U.S., those jails are often overcrowded, since we just lo-o-o-ve sending people to jail.
An irony: the fines and fees levied against lawbreakers are increasing to help state and local governments still hurting from the recession. But many of those governments are also trying to reduce jail and prison populations to save cash. Seems counterproductive to lock up debtors, then, doesn't it?
And, just as with prisons, private companies may be reaping the benefits:
In Georgia, three dozen for-profit probation companies operate in hundreds of courts, and there have been similar lawsuits. In one, Randy Miller, 39, an Iraq war veteran who had lost his job, was jailed after failing to make child support payments of $860 a month. In another, Hills McGee, with a monthly income of $243 in veterans benefits, was charged with public drunkenness, assessed $270 by a court and put on probation through a private company. The company added a $15 enrollment fee and $39 in monthly fees. That put his total for a year above $700, which Mr. McGee, 53, struggled to meet before being jailed for failing to pay it all.
“These companies are bill collectors, but they are given the authority to say to someone that if he doesn’t pay, he is going to jail,” said John B. Long, a lawyer in Augusta, Ga., who is taking the issue to a federal appeals court this fall. “There are things like garbage collection where private companies are O.K. No one’s liberty is affected. The closer you get to locking someone up, the closer you get to a constitutional issue.”
The issue of using the courts to produce income has caught the attention of the country’s legal establishment. A recent study by the nonpartisan Conference of State Court Administrators, “Courts Are Not Revenue Centers,” said that in traffic violations, “court leaders face the greatest challenge in ensuring that fines, fees and surcharges are not simply an alternate form of taxation.”
J. Scott Vowell, the presiding judge of Alabama’s 10th Judicial Circuit, said in an interview that his state’s Legislature, like many across the country, was pressuring courts to produce revenue, and that some legislators even believed courts should be financially self-sufficient.Of course, if states ran their criminal justice systems more cost-effectively -- in other words, without mandatory minimum prison sentences that increase prison populations and costs -- perhaps they would not have to worry about "financially self-sufficient" court systems, or increasing fines and fees to make ends meet.
Unnecessary and excessive use of incarceration is the big-ticket budget item in state criminal justice systems. When there is too much of it, it sends ripples all the way down to the bottom.