The Broken Justice System; How One Offense Can Prevent Rehabilitation

In an article by NPR, As Court Fees Rise, the Poor are Paying the Price, multiple accounts are given to illuminate the plight of former offenders in debt, many of which are homeless and former veterans. At the heart of the article are impoverished offenders whose offenses were nonviolent crimes, and yet the men and women interviewed are forced into an endless cycle of poverty for having to pay court fees and ever escalating court debt that accrues from not having the financial means to pay the fines in the first place. Unfortunately, the justice system seems to be broken. Instead of giving offenders the opportunity to get rehabilitated, the system reinforces poverty that causes recidivism.

Those Forced to “Pay or Stay”

The NPR article is the result of a yearlong investigation that measured data by reviewing one year of jail booking records, thousands of pages of court documents, and reviewing laws in each of the 50 states and the District of Colombia, in addition to interviewing over 150 lawyers, judges, defendants – in and out of jail, government officials, and other experts. The results of the investigation found that “the cost of the justice system in the United States is paid increasingly by the defendants themselves.” NPR correspondent Joseph Shapiro was one of the contributors to the investigation writing the series Guilty and Charged.

Shapiro studied one year of jail records in Benton County, Washington. 25% of people in the county jail are there not for their misdemeanor offense, but rather for their inability to pay court fees. Misdemeanor offenses heard in District Courts may range from driving with a suspended license to failing to put a child in a car seat, and misdemeanors heard in the Superior Court may include theft or drug possession.

Barry Smith is one particular offender who is homeless, receiving government assistance in the measly amount of $197.00 a month. On the day of his hearing, he was asked to explain to the judge why he neglected to pay his $1,300.00 court fees, including the $100.00 warrant for his arrest, for which, at the time of the hearing, he was spending time in the county jail. Smith tried to explain that he simply did not have the means to pay the fees, asking the judge, “What am I suppose to do? Pray to God that (the money) falls out of the sky and into my hands? Ma’am?”

While crime is never excusable, Smith’s theft misdemeanor is, perhaps, at least understandable, given his circumstances. What is not understandable and unreasonable is the unsympathetic judge’s decision to impose a sentence of 75 days in jail with a purge condition of $500.00, which is in is addition to the outstanding fee Smith already owes.

The Effects of Demanding Court Fees From the Poor

According to Washington State Judge Robert Ingvalson, there are two consequences for committing a crime: your time or your money. He claims that incarceration is used to enforce justice for those who cannot pay court fees. Vanessa Torres Hernandez, an attorney with the American Civil Liberty Union of Washington, claims that court fines and fees are like receiving a second sentencing for the poor who cannot afford to pay them.

The court fine and fee for a person convicted of a Felony in Washington is $2,500.00. Such fines and fees go against the principals of equality that the United States was founded upon, that the law should not differentiate between the classes – rich or poor, and yet by making offenders go to jail who cannot afford to pay their court fees, the court system is essentially giving wealthy offenders a get-out-of-jail-free card.

As a result, offenders with low-level, nonviolent crimes are being sentenced to prison, giving a jail sentence to someone who would otherwise not have one. The problem with charging offenders who cannot pay, other than the fact that it is pointless, since the poor and homeless offenders cannot pay the fees that they owe in the first place, is that once they attempt to rehabilitate, they will have difficulty doing so under the lofty weight of debt and holding a criminal record. There are, however, a few programs designed to aid offenders by giving them alternatives to paying the entire sum and serving a sentence.

Restorative Justice Programs and Payment Alternatives

Many states offer restorative justice programs in effort to give offenders who cannot afford to pay their court fees an alternative to payment and jail time. Some of the Restorative Justice programs in Washington include:

  • Work crew: a restorative justice program for low risk youths that offers physical labor performing community service activates such as picking up trash as an alternative to paying court fees or serving detention time. Work crew, however, charges $5.00 a day in order to participate.
  • Fugitive Safe Surrender: the program offers significant reductions for nonviolent offenders with sizable court fines and fees. Offenders wanted for misdemeanors and felonies also have the option to turn themselves in to their cases adjudicated in a safe and nonviolent environment.

The State adds 12% interest and more fees to the court fine and fees already owed. The only options available in most states, including Washington, is to serve a jail time as a substitute for paying court fines and fees. Some in Benton County have the option to go to jail for one month or two months to clear their bill.

Expunging Your Washington Criminal Record

Once court fines and fees have been paid, it may still be difficult to find employment for former offenders, since most employers run criminal background checks. Fortunately, expunging your criminal record will overturn your conviction to show no finding of guilt, which will help you to pass criminal background checks for employment, opening the door to better career opportunities and a stable income. Do not get stuck in a system of recidivism. Break the cycle by expunging your offense from your criminal record. If you can identify with the victims in this article, then money is not something that you can afford to throw away. You can find out if you are eligible to have your record expunged using the free eligibility test provided by

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