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Income-Based Fines Could Reduce Justice Debts for Poor: Study

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Some 300,000 Americans owed nearly $136 billion in criminal debt in 2017, the last year for which data is available, according to a study sponsored by the Brookings Institute.

An astonishing 90 percent of that debt is categorized as unrecoverable by the federal government, said the study authored by Prof. Beth A. Colgan of the UCLA School of Law.

But in the process, the escalating court fees and fines often end up locking low-income individuals behind bars in the modern equivalent of “debtors’ prisons” when they can’t pay, Colgan wrote.

In her study, sponsored by the Hamilton Project of Brookings, Colgan proposed a system of “graduated sanctions” that would be levied according to a person’s ability to pay.

Unless something is done to relieve a debt burden fueled by jurisdictions which use fines, fees, and surcharges to relieve pressure on their own budgets, justice-involved individuals and their families will continue to be enmeshed in a cruel spiral of joblessness, thwarted opportunity, and hardship that all too often results in committing more crimes to dig themselves out of the hole.

“The inability to pay criminal justice debt quickly and in full can result in long-term, disastrous consequences,” Colgan wrote in the report, entitled “Addressing Modern Debtors Prisons with Graduated Economic Sanctions.”

For those who can’t pay their debts and simply give up trying, punishments range from “constitutionally questionable” measures of taking away their driver’s licenses and voting rights to the extension of probation and parole and even incarceration, wrote Colgan.

Yet most people who become enmeshed in the criminal justice system are also trapped in poverty. Of people charged with misdemeanor or felony offenses that could carry prison sentences, between 80 percent and 90 percent qualify for indigent defense.

In the United States, 60 percent of state inmates and 92 percent of federal inmates are subjected to sanctions “that can be difficult or impossible for them to repay.”

Colgan proposed a system of graduated economic sanctions based on a person’s ability to pay and was “designed to meet the criminal justice goals of sentencing equality and crime reduction while also improving outcomes for people and their families who would otherwise carry unmanageable debt.”

Any calculation of a person’s ability to pay criminal debt would begin with an assessment of income and a subtraction of funds needed for basic needs.

Then policymakers would need to decide whether to use a flat reduction approach, a sliding scale, or day-fines.

Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin will lead off a discussion of the reform proposal at a forum Friday. The forum which begins at 10 am (EST) and ends at 12 noon. A link to the livestream can be accessed here.

Scheduled speakers at the panel discussions include: Kristen Clarke, president and executive director, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; Maya Wiley, legal analyst for NBC News and MSNBC and Henry Cohen professor of urban policy and management at The New School; Jeremy Travis, executive vice president of criminal justice, Arnold Ventures; Jamila Hodge, director, Reshaping Prosecution Program, Vera Institute of Justice;  and Jo-Ann Wallace, president and CEO, National Legal Aid Defenders Association

Other scheduled to speaks are: Robin Steinberg, CEO, The Bail Project; Danielle Allen, James Bryant Conant university professor and director, Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Harvard University; and Alex Tabarrok, Bartley J. Madden chair in economics, James M. Buchanan Center for Political Economy, department of economics, George Mason University.

Nancy Bilyeau is Deputy Editor of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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