Debt is a Life Sentence

Yesterday, we attended a conference on Reentry Legal Services, put on by the The Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) and the Legal Aid Association of California (LAAC), as part of the 2014 Family Law and Self-Help Conference. One of the topics discussed in a breakout session was “Fines, Fees, and Restitution,” and how these payments hamper our clients for their entire lives. Coincidentally, when I got home last night, I found that a friend had posted this article to Facebook—The Cruel Poverty of Monetary Sanctions by Alexes Harris, part of the Sociology Department at the University of Washington. This article does a great job of laying out the issues that poor people face after being convicted of a crime and having sanctions imposed.

When a person is convicted of a crime, sanctions and fees are imposed for things like court processing, defense attorneys, paper work, and anything else associated with his or her incarceration and supervision. For low-income and poor people who cannot pay these fines, the interest, surcharges and collection charges build up over time. And though a convicted person may serve time in prison or jail, complete community service, or participate in alternative sentencing programs, if they cannot pay the fines, fees, and restitution ordered by the court as part of their penalty, their sentence is considered incomplete and they remain under judicial supervision, subject to court summons, warrants, and even jail stays. In essence, they are never free because of their poverty and debt.

Harris has researched  the growth, process, and impact of legal financial obligations. She explains that, while fines have always been imposed in the American criminal justice system, starting in the early 1990s, states began changing laws to dramatically expand the number and types of fees and surcharges they could impose. In 2004 in Washington State, the average monetary felony sentence (not including restitution for victims) totaled just under $1,400—an enormous sum for many desperately poor clients in the criminal justice system. The initial amount also accumulates dramatically: 12% interest begins accruing from the day of sentencing, and a $100 annual collection surcharge is added to unpaid balances per felony conviction.

Why does the issue of debt for fines, fees, and restitution matter in reentry? Because they keep people locked out of society. As discussed, criminal courts view unpaid debt as equivalent to an incomplete sentence—to time not yet served. People who come out of prison and jail, ready to restart their lives, often discover that fines and fees they didn’t even know about have been running against them for their ENTIRE period of incarceration—a time when they had no job or living wage. But those unpaid court debts and interest were adding up, and, upon release, people realize they owe tens of thousands of dollars to the state, with no ability to pay. Because the courts consider monetary sanctions to be equivalent to court sentences, the person has “not completed” their time. Therefore, no matter how rehabilitated, if they are poor and unable to pay, they cannot receive certificates of discharge, seal their records, receive pardons, or request deferred prosecution—legal mechanisms meant to allow those who have completed their sentences to move past their felony conviction to become productive citizens. These tools are essential for applying for a job, renting or purchasing a home, and applying for credit, since employers, landlords, and lenders frequently search applicants’ credit and legal backgrounds.

Legal debt effectively derails prospects for success after conviction and in reentry. It is an issue we are just starting to explore as we work with clients in reentry, and a startling wake up call to all of us who don’t fully understand how poverty is criminalized in America, and how those with the least means continue to be pushed to the margins of our society, out of the legal job market and out of safe housing.

Is a wealthy man any more innocent, any more deserving of rehabilitation and a second chance than a poor one? No. I think we can all agree that the amount of money in someone’s wallet shouldn’t dictate whether they are able to get a second chance after serving their time.

To read more about this issue, please see Harris’s article here:

— The R&R Team

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