The Very High Price of Redemption

At the moment, roadblocks to voting are on the front burner, under the assumption that if the Democrats can just create a new voting block of ex-cons, they will adopt progressive ideals of getting whatever makes their life better for free and vote their team. Whether that’s true remains to be seen, but nonetheless, they aren’t wrong to fight for the franchise for people who have served their sentence. They should be entitled to their right to vote, no matter who they vote for.

But then there’s the fee issue, where restoration of voting rights is contingent on ex-cons paying their debt to society not only by time in prison, but in actual dollars. Regardless of the moment’s trendy concern for the sake of voting rights, the burden of prison debt will remain a massive problem for people who we want and expect to come out of prison and lead law-abiding productive lives.

While many Americans would claim to believe in second chances, this country’s felony laws frequently block people from full participation in our society after they’ve served time by denying them the right to vote. Those who have completed their sentences are all too often prevented from casting ballots simply because they have unpaid court fines and fees.

Voting is a fundamental right, but the debt burden goes far beyond voting rights, and the impact is far more devastating to people’s lives than whether to vote Blue.

In all these cases, the price tag can be significant: In North Carolina, for example, people who have been incarcerated must pay $40 per month in supervision fees and $90 per month if placed on electronic monitoring. And these are often alongside the fees that they have already racked up. These include $60 to determine whether a person is too poor to afford a lawyer, $10 a day for each day that he or she is jailed pretrial because bail was unaffordable, and $600 if the prosecutor tests evidence at the state crime lab.

A national research project collecting information from 14 states found families owe on average $13,600 in court-related fees and fines. We’ve seen reporting on people who owe tens of thousands —$33,000 in one instance and $91,000 in another.

When you put these numbers together, you realize this is kinda nuts. While each charge alone has what appears, if you squint a bit and think only of the cost to society, to be a not completely ridiculous burden that an accused never asked for, when you add up the nut you realize that the cumulative burden is insurmountable. If people were poor going in, now they’re even poorer plus unpayable debt coming out.

Courts have indulged the legal fiction that there is an administrative cost associated with each function of the system, and since someone has to pay it, why not the person least capable, least able to object and who never asked to be arrested in the first place? Remember, these fees aren’t the fines imposed by a judge, but the fees levied by legislatures to offset their costs, and usually make a little extra on the side because who’s counting. This allows government to provide services people want, prisons for example, without taxing them for the full cost, or taking the money from more fun projects to please people more likely to vote for them or donate to their campaign.

And who’s to stop the government from imposing fees? Then more fees? Then fees stacked on fees, and late payment fees and interest, then attorney’s fees for collecting late fees on fees. There’s no Prisoner’s Local of the Teamsters Union to go on strike for charging inmates “room and board” for their delicious Nutraloaf.

With no one to object to fees, it became a piggy bank to be tapped, whether as an excuse when someone asked the unpleasant question of where the money would come from to fund new-fangled ideas like GPS ankle bracelets, or to the extent the fees were actually paid. Granted, most fees are never paid, as you can’t get blood from a rock, but whatever fees are paid are gravy, and politicians absolutely love green gravy.

How did this ridiculous state of affairs happen? Piece by piece, fee by fee, and each cost didn’t seem so unreasonable, so burdensome, as to make a big stink. Besides, these were criminals, and everybody hates criminals because they’re criminals, right? If they don’t want to do the time pay the fee, they shouldn’t commit the crime. So the simplistic refrain goes.

And once the Dems are past their latest fashion trend, voting rights, this stumbling block to returning to society as a law-abiding, productive citizen will be forgotten as well. The fees will still be there, as insurmountable as ever and a perpetual burden on people who can’t get jobs, homes or licenses, but have debt payments that would make Harvard Law School blush.

The old saying, that a prisoner who has completed his sentence has paid his debt to society, isn’t merely forgotten, but subsumed in a new meaning of debt that combines with the vast array of stumbling blocks to prevent them from being the people we want them to be. There is one question of whether they should be saddled with the cost of their arrest, prosecution, defense and incarceration, particularly if they are, you know, innocent, but there’s an entirely different question of whether we’re forcing them into recidivism because they’re left with no other option to survive.

But hey, let’s enjoy this bright, shining moment when the question of the debt burden unceremoniously levied on the most hated in society is raised. We’ll have plenty of time to forget about it after the election, when everybody goes back to matters that touch their lives rather than these poor, despised criminals.

6 thoughts on “The Very High Price of Redemption

  1. Patrick Maupin

    The old unconstitutional poll tax was flat. The new poll tax is steeply regressive. Sheer genius!

  2. DaveL

    I have no problem with the states charging prisoners fees for the cost of their jailing and prosecution, if the state is willing to reimburse those same prisoners for the money they would otherwise have been earning had they been free.

    Ridiculous? Sure, but they started it.

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