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Court User Fees Bill Defendants For Their Punishment


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary. Courts have found a new source of funding. They charge user fees to defendants who use the criminal justice system.

These extra charges can add up to hundreds and even thousands of dollars per person on a felony or a simple misdemeanor like a driving offense. NPR has spent the last year looking at the growing practice. NPR investigative correspondent Joseph Shapiro is here to talk about the series. Joe, good to have you.

JOE SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Thank you, Lynn.

NEARY: Now how did you get started on this investigation?

SHAPIRO: Well, in Georgia, I met a man who stole a can of beer, and as a condition of his release, the court said wear this leg monitor. But those things are expensive, and it was $12 a day for him. He was homeless.

He couldn't pay for it, so he went to jail instead. So we started. We did a state-by-state survey. We found 49 states now charge defendants to wear those electronic monitors.

NEARY: What else did you find out in this survey?

SHAPIRO: Well, we did an extensive survey of every state. We found defendants now get charged for a long list of government services - things that were once free including things that are required, constitutionally required like a public defender.

We found that in at least 43 states, defendants can be billed at least a small administrative fee for a public defender. Room and board while in jail or in free prison - 41 states we found you can be billed for that. And probation and parole supervision - in 44 states, you're going to get billed for that.

NEARY: Some of this - this just really surprised you, some of these things.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. Absolutely. Defendants get billed for the cost of their own arrest warrants. They get billed for their court-ordered alcohol and drug treatment.

I went to one county in Michigan where defendants are charged for the costs of running the courthouse so for the phones, the heat, even to underwrite the employees' fitness gym. Or - listen to this conversation I had with Alexes Harris, a sociologist at the University of Washington. She's writing a book about these costs that are charged to defendants.

ALEXES HARRIS: Well, in Washington State people are charged for juries -$125 for a six-person jury. They're being charged for...

SHAPIRO: I'm sorry, you get charged for a jury?

HARRIS: Right. You get charged to be evaluated by the jury of your peers.

SHAPIRO: Is it a bargain to do it at six?

HARRIS: You do have to pay more for a 12-person jury. It's $250 for a 12-person jury.

NEARY: That's amazing. Now you also found tremendous growth in a number of fees and the amount that states charge on felonies and simple misdemeanors. Why have they grown so much?

SHAPIRO: It's one result of 40 years of tough-on-crime policies. And over those 40 years, we calculated that the number of people behind bars in the U.S., it jumped 700 percent. Jails, prisons, courtrooms, the whole justice system became overcrowded. So the cost kept rising, too.

But at the same time, states were struggling with budget deficits, politicians were under pressure not to raise taxes. So what did states do? They started charging user fees to the defendant who came through the system. But there was one flaw in this because those defendants, most of the time, they're poor, and often they're very poor.

NEARY: Yeah. And how do poor people pay hundreds or thousands of dollars in debt?

SHAPIRO: Right. So courts put them on payment plans. And these are supposed to be in manageable amounts, but NPR found that sometimes, these people get charged extra fees or then interest on what's owed. In Washington state, it charges 12 percent interest on the fees from felony charges.

NEARY: And if people can't afford to pay it and don't pay it, what happens then?

SHAPIRO: Well, if you don't pay, you've violated probation. You can lose your welfare benefits. You can lose your driver's license. And sometimes, if don't pay, then a warrant is issued for your arrest.

In New Jersey, I met a man named Eddie Restrepo. He was in the Army. He came home from Iraq. He couldn't find work. He was homeless. He didn't have money to renew his driver's license, or pay the fines when he got caught driving without that license. So here's how he said he lived when a warrant was issued for his arrest after he didn't pay those fines.

EDDIE RESTREPO: I was always hiding from the cops. I was always - if I was driving, I had to turn left when they were coming right. You know, I was always trying to hide.

SHAPIRO: I met him at a program in New Jersey where he was able to turn himself into the police, and his fines and fees - and he owed $10,000 - they were reduced to $200.

NEARY: Oh, is that what usually happens?

SHAPIRO: No. What we found is that many people do end up going to jail, not for the original, low-level misdemeanor, but because they didn't pay their fines and fees. Later this week, I'll tell the story of a Michigan teen who caught a fish out of season. He didn't pay the $155 fine, and he was sentenced to jail for three days.

And here's one more thing we did. NPR obtained and then we analyzed the jail records for one year for one county in Washington State - Benton County. We looked at people who had gone through the misdemeanor court there on minor offenses. So it was things like not putting a child in a car seat or driving on a suspended license.

So we found, on a typical day, about 25 percent of those people who are now in the Benton County Jail are there not on their original misdemeanor offense, they're there because they didn't pay their fines and fees.

NEARY: NPR's Joe Shapiro. His series "Guilty and Charged" airs this week on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Good to have you with us, Joe.

SHAPIRO: Thank you, Lynn. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.