Debtor’s Prison for Failure to Pay for Your Own Trial

by on April 18, 2012 at 7:38 am in Economics, History, Law | Permalink

Debtor’s prisons are supposed to be illegal in the United States but today poor people who fail to pay even small criminal justice fees are routinely being imprisoned. The problem has gotten worse recently because strapped states have dramatically increased the number of criminal justice fees. In Pennsylvania, for example, the criminal court charges for police transport, sheriff costs, state court costs, postage, and “judgment.” Many of these charges are not for any direct costs imposed by the criminal but have been added as revenue enhancers. A $5 fee, for example, supports the County Probation Officers’ Firearms Training Fund, an $8 fee supports the Judicial Computer Project, a $250 fee goes to the DNA Detection Fund. Convicted criminals may face dozens of fees (not including fines and restitution) totaling a substantial burden for people of limited means. Fees do not end outside the courtroom. Jailed criminals can be charged for room and board and for telephone use, haircuts, drug tests, transportation, booking, and medical co-pays. In Arizona, visitors to a prison are now charged a $25 maintenance fee. In PA in order to get parole there is a mandatory charge of $60. While on parole, defendants may be further assessed counseling, testing and other fees. Interest builds unpaid fees larger and larger. In Washington state unpaid legal debt accrues at an interest rate of 12%. As a result, the median person convicted in WA sees their criminal justice debt grow larger over time.

Many states are now even charging the accused to apply for and use a public defender! As a result, some defendants are discouraged from exercising their rights to an attorney.

Most outrageously, in some states public defender, pre-trial jail and other court fees can be assessed on individuals even when they are not convicted of any crime. Failure to pay criminal justice fees can result in revocation of an individual’s drivers license, arrest and imprisonment. Individuals with revoked licenses who drive (say to work to earn money to pay their fees) and are apprehended can be further fined and imprisoned. Unpaid criminal justice debt also results in damaged credit reports and reduced housing and employment prospects. Furthermore, failure to pay fees can mean a violation of probation and parole terms which makes an individual ineligible for Federal programs such as food stamps, Temporary Assistance to Needy Family funds and Social Security Income for the elderly and disabled.

It’s difficult to argue against criminal justice fees for those who can pay, but for those who cannot– and most criminal defendants are poor–such fees can be a personal and public policy disaster. Criminal justice debt drags people further away from reintegration with civil society. A person’s life can spiral out of their control when interest, late fees, revocation of a driver’s license and ineligibility for public assistance, mean that unpaid criminal justice debt snowballs. You can’t get blood from a stone but if you try, you can break the stone.

Optimal punishment is swift and sure but also has a defined endpoint. As with bankruptcy, punishment must end, leaving both hope and opportunity. We used to release criminals without a nickel or a nail but with an understanding that their debt to society had been paid. Today, we release criminals with a ball of debt that chains them to the criminal justice system and which can pull them back into prison long after their sentences have been served. Releasing people with little hope or opportunity for reintegration with civil society is good for neither the releasees nor society.

liberalarts April 18, 2012 at 7:47 am

I live in Pennsylvania and got a $25 ticket for an illegal left turn out of a mall parking lot. The fees added on to the ticket were $77, over three times the base ticket rate. For an extra $5 fee, I could go to court and hope that the cop didn’t show, which I did. He showed up anyway…

FlyoverMike April 19, 2012 at 6:16 pm

I don’t think there is a ticket you can get in California that is less than $200. The son of one of my friends got a cell phone ticket when he wasn’t even using it, and the judge refused to hear his argument and it cost him over $200. Speeding tickets can be over $500. I got a ticket for 57 in a 55 and it was about $550 dollars. I have a friend that is CHP and he says they are supposed to write at least 20 tickets a day. But they don’t have quotas… Taxes in CA are so high, they have figured out that they can raise fines for everything they prohibit and no one will notice till they get caught doing something the legislature doesn’t like. Government all over the country has become nothing more than a racket. Look for the Mob to try and get involved, soon. Maybe that’s why the Dons send their kids to law school?

Marian Kechlibar April 18, 2012 at 7:53 am

At the risk of violating Godwin’s law: the Third Reich billed the execution expenses of its criminals to the relatives. (I am not aware of any extra fees, though. Just bullet + hangman’s work.)

These kind of fees are outrageous, and I would expect that they are unconstitutional. If they are punishment, there is the right to trial. If they are not, equal protection may be violated.

Outrageous.

And a good reminder that every government will do pretty much anything to soak their subjects and rob them alive.

It is still wonder to me why many Americans actually trust the politicians. After things like this …

Neal April 18, 2012 at 10:39 am

It’s not “the government” doing this, it’s the people doing it to themselves through the government. These criminals aren’t the ones voting for the politicians who are pushing these rules, if they’re even allowed to vote …

Doc Merlin April 18, 2012 at 10:43 am

1) So cute! So naive.
2) You think that politicians have to to read, much less actually know what laws are being passed.

Neal April 18, 2012 at 11:26 am

Chief point: Do some public choice.

Andrew' April 18, 2012 at 12:40 pm

It’s not “the government” doing this, it’s the people doing it to themselves through the government. These criminals aren’t the ones voting for the politicians who are pushing these rules, if they’re even allowed to vote …

Wait a second. How does that make sense? Public choice, not government, people doing it to themselves, the people can’t vote.

Neal April 18, 2012 at 5:19 pm

Read it again, more slowly.

Bill April 18, 2012 at 4:36 pm

Doc,

I think Neal has it right. It is people doing to themselves through elected representatives.

I think the one’s who have it wrong are the ones who elect people who run on these platforms. I also think that if you think that people don’t display social and other discrimination through the laws they create or how them enforce them, then I think you think they act one way in one forum, and another way at the local tavern.

Morgan Warstler April 18, 2012 at 4:53 pm

this is wrong.

The problem is public employees. These fee for service issues only arise when we stop paying public employees like the dogs that they are. I mean that in the nicest possible way.

Go back to paying public employees less on avg. than private sector workers, no I don’t car about education levels, and we will not have this problem again.

Andrew' April 18, 2012 at 5:51 pm

For god sake, don’t get Bill started on education levels.

Explain again how it’s people doing it to themselves through the government when the people don’t even vote and the issue has never been on a ballot?

Dean April 18, 2012 at 10:52 pm

Morgan,

That doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense.

tim maguire April 19, 2012 at 2:52 pm

No, we’re not a democracy, we’re a constitutional republic. The people have virtually no say in the day to day running of government. The idea that it’s my fault the government is doing something because I have the ability to vote in a representative who wouldn’t do it is unrealistic, ignorantly idealistic.

John David Galt May 14, 2012 at 12:12 pm

Humbug. I didn’t vote for them, I can’t fire them, therefore I’m not responsible for what they do.

It’s not just the Nazis who charged prisoners for their own punishment; the practice is common throughout the poor countries of Latin America. It’s just one more symptom that the US is becoming a banana republic.

Jason W. April 18, 2012 at 11:52 am

Yes, governments will do pretty much anything to “soak their subjects and rob them alive.” But so do private companies. So what’s the alternative?

It’s not that “government” is somehow inherently worse than other types of organized power — it’s simply a group of normal people who’ve collectively been given a lot of power. Government has the most power, so it has the most ability to abuse. Changing who has the most power doesn’t eliminate abuse, it just replaces the old dominant abuser with a new one. Take power away from government and they will probably abuse less, sure, but then businesses (the only other plausible dominant power) will abuse more. After all, at the end of the day, they, too, are groups of normal people who will collectively have been given the largest portion of power. There’s no reason to think they would act any different than “government” does. They would be the government, even if we didn’t call it that.

Alex’s post provokes outrage in me, truly, but I do still have some faith this will be addressed through the legislature and the courts, albeit slowly and over the course of years and possibly decades. Which is sad. But at the same time, this level of “soaking” is nothing compared to what one could expect in a privately run justice system, which naturally would function as a monopoly, making it all but impossible for us to “vote with our dollars.” And of course we wouldn’t be able to vote at the ballot box either, because they’re a private monopoly, yet some people think this scenario is somehow better than the one we have currently.

I know you didn’t explicitly advocate for a privately run system, but that’s the implication. Because if not government, then whom?

But maybe I’m just still worked up about ordering tickets online to a Phoenix Suns basketball game and being charged a “convenience fee.”

Cliff April 18, 2012 at 12:39 pm

The key difference between the government and any private party is that the government can use force, including deadly force, to compel you. Private parties have to rely on voluntary cooperation. No one would suggest taking power away from the government and then giving large corporations the power to imprison and kill people.

Andrew' April 18, 2012 at 12:43 pm

Oh wait, that’s what we did (e.g. Blackwater)! Thank god the government is so accountable.

Luxomni April 18, 2012 at 1:01 pm

Not quite. You have to go to Whitewater They aren’t here YET.

TallDave April 18, 2012 at 1:08 pm

A common misunderstanding — Blackwater was actually only authorized to defend itself when attacked. Offensive operations were quite verboten. Kidnapping was certainly out.

A better example might be the New Black Panther Party, who are apparently allowed to intimidate voters and place bounties on “white Hispanics.”

Andrew' April 18, 2012 at 2:19 pm

Defending yourself while ensconced in an invasion is an interesting discussion.

Setting that aside, I’ve seen the videos.

Who is in prison?

Jason W. April 18, 2012 at 2:52 pm

Not to sound too cynical (I’m actually a very optimistic person), but the point is that the arrangement of power doesn’t matter as much as people think. Whether the power is private or public or some combination of both, we will still be abused. Whether the government administers the justice backed by their own violence, or whether private entities administer justice backed by government violence, it’s all the same in the end, with the exception that there is less accountability in a system where the government backs private administration of justice. It’s the worst of both worlds: private monopolies backed by state coercion. There’s less accountability still in a world where private entities manage to gain enough power/authority to imprison and/or kill people. You and I may not think we’re necessarily very close to that, but we’re probably closer than many people think.

Anyway, every time I hear someone articulate their vision of a world where government is stripped of most of its power and authority that isn’t related to law/military/punishment, and where private actors are given reign over the “marketplace” — including schools, healthcare, infrastructure, resource extraction, and so on — all I can see in my head is a military state that works in conjunction with unchecked private monopolies to do whatever the hell they want.

jdb April 18, 2012 at 6:11 pm

The only means by which a company could attain an “unchecked private monopoly” is through state interference in the market, or what is commonly known as corporatism. This is what we have today for the most part, and it is accomplished through bureaucratic regulation intended to prevent competition and the solicitation of lobbyist dollars. A government stripped of most of its powers would be powerless to prevent competition for the consumer dollar, which would lead to greater choice and better service for everyone.

Daniel Dostal April 18, 2012 at 8:06 pm

@jdb – So Standard Oil and Walmart mean more choice for all?

Jason W. April 18, 2012 at 8:11 pm

Unchecked, companies can simply own certain markets entirely, to the point where competition is basically impossible. I’m not talking about chain restaurants where the opportunity for competition is basically infinite. Specifically, in this discussion, we’ve been talking about the administration of justice, which does not lend itself at all to competition. It is very easy to imagine how, in private hands, the justice system would not at all be open to competition. Roads are another example — once a private company owns a bridge, it’s not like other private companies can just build more bridges at will. If you own a bridge, you basically have a monopoly over river crossings in that neighborhood. And why stop at one bridge? Buy all the bridges in the city!

Of course, this is the reason governments provide these services in the first place — because they are prone to monopolization, and it’s better to have an accountable government (put “accountable” in quotation marks if you must) as the monopoly than an unaccountable private company.

Anyway, the idea that less government would lead to better choice is laughable. Government regulations do more than just break up or prevent monopolies — they guard against corruption, collusion, etc. There is a reason there are regulations, and it’s not the inherent evilness of government. Regulations are sometimes anticipatory, but more often they are responses to past abuses. People who want “government stripped of most of its powers” haven’t really thought through what the consequences would actually be.

The opposition to government makes sense, but only if it’s based on a more fundamental opposition to the broad accumulation of power in general. And this must include opposition to the broad accumulation of power in private enterprise. Otherwise you’re just asking to trade one oppressor with another. Stop acting like business is benevolent, or at least more benevolent than government. It’s not.

Methinks April 19, 2012 at 12:23 am

Daniel, tho you didn’t address it to me, yes. No question.

Jason, your analysis is lacking. The demand for bridges is not completely inelastic. In your scenario, the one company would bid up the bridges in order to establish monopoly control to raise prices and generate excess profits, yes? And this would be restricted to islands because that’s a pretty rare scenario. People would telecommute, move across the bridge to avoid the cost, competitors would be attracted by excess returns and build a tunnel. At some price, ferry services would be competitive. And that’s just off the top of my head. The company will always be under threat of competition. And what happens to the company who put all it’s eggs in one bridge basket? Probably losses.

It’s not worth the attempt as the probability of extracting excess
return is too low and the cost of the attempt is too high. One
company may own all the bridges, but it’s ability to raise the tolls will always be constrained by market forces.

Contrast that with government, which can both charge whatever it wants (it doesn’t need to make a profit) and it can (and does) criminalize competition to it. A marriage of government and private sector is no better.

Luxomni April 18, 2012 at 1:05 pm

“being charged a “convenience fee.”” There is an answer to that. Can you do it? Don’t buy the ticket. And then call them or better write them and say “I starteded to buy the ticket, but then I saw the fee and that was a deal breaker. Let me know when you no longer do it and I will consider doing business with you again”. And then, let every single person you know know that you did it..

Jason W. April 18, 2012 at 3:05 pm

So that’s the convenience, then? I can either pay the $2.00 fee, or I can do everything you just suggested and be miserable and inconvenienced. People think examples like this make the case for “free markets,” because I’m supposed to be charmed by the fact that I have a “choice,” but really it’s precisely this kind of thing that pisses people off and makes them desire more government regulation, whether that desire is well-considered or not. Where you see “choice,” many others see “two crappy options.” It’s not the strong argument you think it is.

jdb April 18, 2012 at 6:18 pm

I suppose it might be less of a “crappy option” for you if you could force Ticketmaster to sell you their goods at whatever price you deemed fair. I’d like to try this the next time I build a house as well–free sounds fair to me.

It’s inconvenient that we don’t get to set the prices of those things we want, but that’s the reality of voluntary exchange.

Jason W. April 18, 2012 at 9:56 pm

jdb, I feel like I’m being boxed in as some defender of the government who doesn’t understand the free market. I get it, trust me, and I don’t want to force Ticketmaster to do anything, nor do I want the government to regulate the fees they charge me. You’re missing my point, which is that private business, just like government, aims to soak and will do so at every opportunity. The government has less competition so there are things they can get away with that business can’t, but shrink government enough and soon business will get away with those things, too. The natural desire of any business, after all, is not to expand choice but to limit it.

Methinks April 19, 2012 at 12:33 am

Jason, how? Excess returns attract competition. Private companies must always fight for market share.

You concede that lack of competition allows government to get away with things they otherwise wouldn’t be able to get away with. Why would shrinking government suddenly allow companies (which are subject to competitive market forces) to impose additional costs on their customers?

Are you perhaps conflating shrinking government and eliminating rule of law, contacts and property rights?

Derek Scruggs April 18, 2012 at 7:09 pm

Ticketmaster has something very close to a monopoly. Pearl Jam famously tried to do a tour without them and it was a disaster. It’s almost impossible for a major act to book with a venue unless they get a cut.

Donald A. Coffin April 18, 2012 at 2:29 pm

“Changing who has the most power doesn’t eliminate abuse, it just replaces the old dominant abuser with a new one.”

Or, as Pete Townshend wrote:
“Meet the new boss
Same as the old boss…”

Concerned Citizen April 19, 2012 at 5:22 pm

The key to government here is to never let them have the ability to spend more than a minimal amount of money. If they can’t do anything, it doesn’t matter which joker gets elected. In fact, it was like that until the bankers took over in 1913.

This will only end when people get fed up enough to change it (ballot box or revolution of some kind) or the government completely goes down in flames because it spent everyone’s money. Give it a couple more years to run through everyone’s 401K, brokerage account and bank accounts. Then it’ll be over.

careless April 18, 2012 at 10:24 pm

That isn’t a violation of Godwin’s law, it’s a simple following of it.

Rahul April 18, 2012 at 8:10 am

Optimal punishment is swift and sure but also has a defined endpoint. As with bankruptcy, punishment must end, leaving both hope and opportunity.

The big problem here is background-record-checks and registries. I think they do more harm than good especially with essentially infinite time horizons. It is impossible to get a fresh start any more. What sort of jobs are available to someone with a past-crime in his history?

Parole / probation seems to be another way to keep a person under lifelong restrictions even after formal release. Some of the durations of sentencing and parole are so long it’s almost a joke.

jimi April 18, 2012 at 9:18 am

Don’t worry Rahul, the Federal government will collapse under it’s own weight soon, creating a big re-boot. I give it by 2026.

dave smith April 18, 2012 at 10:38 am

The records will remain, I’d bet.

Urso April 18, 2012 at 10:45 am

This is almost exclusively a state problem. For all the complaining internet libertarians like to do about the feds, they bizarrely seem to give state governments a pass even though the states can be far more meddlesome/populist.

Methinks April 18, 2012 at 10:55 am

I don’t speak for all libertarians, but I think you’re right about the states. The reason I care less about state and local governments than about the federal government is that moving to a new town or state to avoid abusive policies is far less costly than renouncing U.S. citizenship to avoid the federal government. I just made such a move.

chuck martel April 18, 2012 at 11:40 am

The small suburb where I live has no police force, it contracts for police services from a neighboring town. Less than 3000 people live here and the city is paying over $600K a year for these cops. It’s literally impossible to look out the window and not see a patrol car. Yet people seem to be happy with this situation because they feel that it somehow prevents crime. What would these people think if there was a city program to mow everyone’s lawn and that there were four or five guys out there just mowing lawns continually, regardless of the length of the grass? Of course, they’d think it was nuts but law enforcement is totally divorced from reality.

Dan Weber April 18, 2012 at 12:08 pm

I admit I never thought much about what a fair price should be, but $200 per person per year to have a police force sounds like a pretty good deal.

Andrew' April 18, 2012 at 2:20 pm

What’s the price for a police farce?

Rahul April 18, 2012 at 11:35 am

Which part are you blaming on the states? Long sentences or lifelong record blemishes?

Urso April 18, 2012 at 12:19 pm

Both. The vast majority of all criminal law is the bailiwick of the states.

Rahul April 18, 2012 at 3:53 pm

Isn’t federal sentencing harsher? Also, the Feds could easily remedy the lifelong stigma situation by just passing a law that basing employment on conviction records (barring some exceptions) was illegal. I think some nations do have similar laws.

I can see why a kindergarten might want to know if a teacher was a child molester. But the case for ,say, Walmart wanting to know if a accountant had a public-intoxication record is much weaker.

Peter H April 18, 2012 at 7:32 pm

Rahul,

Federal sentencing is harsher for certain drug crimes, but generally state sentencing is harsher/as harsh for most other crimes.

And a federal law banning discrimination based on criminal records might not actually work. See, for example, the Americans with Disabilities Act, in the wake of which, fewer disabled people are employed.

Mike April 19, 2012 at 5:56 pm

Rahul,

In the federal system you have to serve 85% of the sentence you are given. Most states allow early release after serving a much lower percentage of the sentence. Also there are federal mandatory minimums for many drug crimes, causing the sentences for simple possession to be harsher than those at the state level.

dan1111 April 18, 2012 at 8:30 am

Thanks for raising this issue, of which I was unaware. In particular, charging fees even to those who are not convicted of a crime is indefensible. I agree with Marian that this seems blatantly unconstitutional. It also seems like something that would easily get struck down by the Supreme Court. Has this not been tested in the courts?

Neal April 18, 2012 at 10:40 am

Who being charged with these fees has the time, money, and chutzpah to push the issue all the way to SCOTUS? Especially when it’s often cheaper to just plead guilty and not incur extra fines and fees — and the possibility of a higher sentence, by pissing off the prosecutors — by taking the case to court.

Doc Merlin April 18, 2012 at 10:44 am

Its really easy to avoid this, just drop the fees for anyone who appeals to an unfriendly court. This moots the case and gets it instantly removed from court. I don’t think you realize how incredibly unjust the system is.

Cliff April 18, 2012 at 12:44 pm

In theory, if they do that as a practice you should still be able to get judicial review. It’s like Roe v. Wade- by the time the case was taken up the issue was moot because the child was born. But the court still took the case because otherwise there would be no way for the court ever to weigh in on the subject since the cases would always be moot.

Doc Merlin April 18, 2012 at 10:12 pm

They do it as a practice, and it doesn’t get review.
This is why red-light camera fines are still around in Texas despite the Texas constitution explicitly prohibiting them.nnIf you refuse to pay, they ding your credit. If you appeal, they drop the fine, but most people pay instead of appealing, because showing up to court is very time consuming.

Andrew' April 18, 2012 at 12:47 pm

Again, in such cases involving government the “standing” requirement is insane. Or, rather it is interpreted in an asinine way, which is absolutely no surprise.

Andrew' April 18, 2012 at 12:49 pm

“Oh wait, you mean laws have deterrence effects?”

Yeah, no shit counselor.

rz0 April 18, 2012 at 8:37 am

I fought a parking ticket last month. Had I lost, I would have been hit with $250 in fees. One poor out-of-work guy couldn’t afford the fee, even tho he was given six months to pay. He got 30 days of community service.

nostril earlobe April 18, 2012 at 8:47 am

Signs of a coming collapse.

Methinks April 18, 2012 at 9:01 am

?It’s difficult to argue against criminal justice fees for those who can pay

From each according to his ability to each according to his need. Great system. So much for equality under the law and this introduces a great set of incentives besides.

Here’s a better solution: stop criminalizing practically every normal human activity (drugs in particular) and stop jailing people for unpaid fees. Methods of recovery such as wage garnishment accomplish the task far better than the methods outlined in the post. But, the bigger problem is the growth of the cushy jobs in the expanding criminal “justice” bureaucracy. Let’s face it, the system is becoming less of an instrument of protection and more of an instrument of extortion.

chuck martel April 18, 2012 at 11:06 am

Your better solution is wishful thinking. The reality is that the various levels of government in the US are literally at war with the citizens. It is in the economic interest of bureaucrats that more and more individuals enter the criminal justice system and be bled white under the guise of “justice”. As punishments become more and more draconian we will see more events such as occurred recently in New Hampshire, where criminals are willing to do battle to avoid arrest for dealing in the black market http://www.unionleader.com/article/20120414/NEWS03/704149995. Law enforcement has already expanded its capabilities from the neighborhood cop on the beat to quasi-military teams with body armor, armored vehicles, aircraft and drones that enthusiastically kill the people they are sent to investigate or arrest. The violence will continue to escalate until it reaches beyond the dystopian vision of the 1980′s movie “Brazil”.

Methinks April 18, 2012 at 11:16 am

Chuck, you’re absolutely correct. Although, I’m hoping your prediction proves to be false.

TallDave April 18, 2012 at 11:38 am

Sadly, Man’s capacity for coercion greatly outweighs his respect for rights.

Bill April 18, 2012 at 4:38 pm

Chuck, What if, instead of the arrow pointing at the “bureaucrat”, the arrow pointed at the person they elected who ran on these silly platforms?

Roger Koppl April 18, 2012 at 9:05 am

Important. Thanks, Alex.

Alex H April 18, 2012 at 9:09 am

Scalia will argue that these fees are not punishments and so cannot be objected to on grounds of justice.

Andrew' April 18, 2012 at 9:24 am

If the fees aren’t punishment, what’s the jail time, remedial edification?

“Are you a better person? Check Yes or no”

If Yes – pay for improvement service fee

If No – you are not ready for release, go directly to jail

careless April 18, 2012 at 10:32 pm

Part one of your comment seems likely, part two, not so much. If we ignore your exclusivity on possible grounds for objection. Although still possible.

Tim April 18, 2012 at 9:20 am

I have a friend experiencing this exact situation right now. Right now, if he fails to pay the costs of his probation, it could be a violation of probation, which means he could get thrown in jail, which means he would have no ability to pay!

Unfortunately, this seems to be a constituency without an advocate.

Andrew' April 18, 2012 at 9:29 am

“It’s difficult to argue against criminal justice fees for those who can pay,”

It’s super easy to argue when they are exonerated (also known as wrongly prosecuted) or charged and/or convicted only of “resisting arrest” (also known as wrongly arrested).

ElamBend April 18, 2012 at 9:39 am

Can these fees be discharged by a bankruptcy?

Andrew' April 18, 2012 at 10:09 am

Hahaha! It’s the government!

Doc Merlin April 18, 2012 at 10:47 am

No. Government fees and student loans are not discharged in bankruptcy.

elambend April 18, 2012 at 11:03 am

that’s what I was afraid of. They could at least just garnish wages or lien income (with an upper limit), otherwise it really is tyranny.

Doc Merlin April 18, 2012 at 10:14 pm

“otherwise it really is tyranny.”

Welcome to the 21st century.

byomtov April 18, 2012 at 9:40 am

I agree wholeheartedly with this post, except for the part about those able to pay. These fees are outrageous. Being charged for the use of a public defender seems to me to be almost certainly unconstitutional.

Congratulations on raising this issue. I hope it receives wider attention.

John Mansfield April 18, 2012 at 9:50 am

It seems like a sign of governments that are dissipated trying to do so many extraneous things to the point that the ability to carry out core, fundamental responsibilities has been compromised.

Andrew M April 18, 2012 at 9:51 am

I know that North Carolina requires probationers and paroles to pay a significant community service fee (along with fees for probation, fines, etc). This means that convicted criminals spend hours working for a city or state organizations, yet actually pay the city and state for the privilege of doing the community service. This creates obvious problems since 1) they are doing community service when they could be earning money and 2) they are required to pay hundreds of dollars they don’t have to complete the community service. These types of policies undoubtedly contribute to high rates of recidivism, since criminals are left few options but a return to illicit trade.

The earlier points about record keeping are even more pertinent. I know ex-cons who have been unable to find gainful employment because of crimes committed 5-6 years ago as 18 year old kids. Again, this perpetuates high rates of recidivism since criminals are forced to commit illicit activities to pay the financial obligations of earlier criminal activities.

The criminal in-justice system is in clear need of an overhaul.

Bill April 18, 2012 at 10:06 am

This is the best comment on MR ever.

Alex, if you ever get arrested, count me in for $100 to pay your fees.

Bill April 18, 2012 at 10:14 am

The next issue should be mandatory minimum sentences and disparate sentencing for similar crimes.

If you want to read more about this and even more horendous practices, there is a recent book published by Oxford University Press entitled Punishing Race: A Continuing American Dilemma by university prof and criminologist Michael Tonry. Interesting statistical workups.

Roy April 18, 2012 at 10:33 am

Isn’t this a universal issue? Why bring race into it. White defendents have to pay these fees as well. If anything it is a class issue. Why bring race in to it at all?

Bill April 18, 2012 at 10:37 am

That is an empirical question, isn’t it?

You might want to read the book I cited.

Roy April 18, 2012 at 11:23 am

I had plenty of interactions with the author when I was at the University of Minnesota in the `90s. I am pretty sure I am familiar with his argument, from the reviews I have read they have not changed. While I am very sympathetic with his views on racial disparities in sentencing, he was never able to convince me that the real issue was not class.

Dan Weber April 18, 2012 at 12:14 pm

A colleague who studied this claims that it isn’t the race or sex of the perpetrator that causes the biggest skew, but rather the race and sex of the victim.

So don’t go kill any white women.

Bill April 18, 2012 at 1:57 pm

Roy, By the way, the studies, not including his own, control for class (ie, income level).

Bill April 18, 2012 at 2:38 pm

Roy, Moreover, race and class can both be working–one doesn’t exclude the other. It’s not either or. It can be both, additive or correlated.

Let the facts and data speak for itself.

Methinks April 18, 2012 at 10:40 am

Seems like less of a class or a race issue and more of a government gone wild issue. Race and class are just easy victims.

Neal April 18, 2012 at 10:43 am

“Government” isn’t some monolith. Try some public choice analysis. What incentives do the agents making the laws face?

Methinks April 18, 2012 at 10:48 am

Neal, I understand the role of incentives, but I’m missing the point you’re trying to make.

Neal April 18, 2012 at 11:29 am

It’s a cop-out to call this “government gone wild.” I’m asking for a breakdown here of the groups of people involved and the incentives which lead them to make the decisions that instituted and perpetuate this system.

Roy April 18, 2012 at 11:32 am

I agree but you have to admit that a class dimension clearly exists here. Who is the easiest to victimize here? The lowest classes.

Neal April 18, 2012 at 11:38 am

Class is often a useful tool for conducting public choice analysis :)

Methinks April 18, 2012 at 11:46 am

Roy, I absolutely agree. They make easy targets. But, does government abuse become more palatable when it is turned on another class instead or do we stand against all government abuse? If we consider some abuse okay and some not, then it is inevitable those without powerful connections will be the most likely victims. I argue that the lowest classes are inevitable targets of government’s abuse of power.

Methinks April 18, 2012 at 11:56 am

Neal, government actors are individually incentivized to consolidate and abuse power. Prosecutors to get convictions regardless of method and irrespective of guilt, bureaucrats to grow the power and scope of their bureaucracies, etc. I understand. In aggregate, I’m referring to these activities as “government gone wild”. If you’re trying to make a different point, it has once again slipped past me.

Roy April 18, 2012 at 12:01 pm

Methinks, I totally agree. But if we are going to focus on one group I would much rather it be the more universal one of class than an exclusive one of race. That will be far more helpful in addressing the sort of abuses that ACLU report described in Spokane for example.

Methinks April 18, 2012 at 2:54 pm

Roy, okay. But can the group we focus on be all of us against the growing menace of an encroaching state? The focus on race or class usually devolves into bickering amongst the victims, clearing the way for the state to stomp on us like roaches (okay, a little dramatic, but if you’re going to draw a picture, might as well be a vivid one, eh?)

Neal April 18, 2012 at 5:22 pm

Methinks, I thinks that there is more to government than the bureaucrats. I also think that the bureaucrats are not making their decisions in a vacuum; they are influenced by their friends and families and by the elected officials who pass laws and set policies and so on. We need a better analysis than “the bureaucrats are screwing the criminals.”

Methinks April 18, 2012 at 7:22 pm

Neal, I agree with you that bureaucrats have their own incentives. I will add to the list that politicians do as well and I think you’d agree with that. The problem is that those incentives are (basically) to screw the rest of us in order to enrich themselves in some way. Yes, it’s way more complicated, but this is a blog comment and it’s just not a great forum for dissecting and examining the innards of the entire body of public choice.

My current thinking is that the cost of government has not yet reached a level where people are encouraged to actively revolt. My definition of “active revolt” includes widespread black markets, bribes to get government off their backs and hiding assets, etc. I don’t know…I might be argued out of that position in the future.

KLO April 18, 2012 at 10:16 am

Not to be outdone, many people charged with minor offenses are jailed until they post bond. Often, the likely punishment for the charged offenses would be a fine– not even time in prison. To get out of jail, most people use the services of a bail bondsman, which are not inexpensive for the people most likely to be in jail. While I understand that Tyler and Alex like the private, free market model of the bail bondsman business, their idealized version of the business does not always track reality. Many jurisdictions do not requite that the bail bondsman forfeit the bond in the event that the defendant fails to show for trial. In these jurisdictions, the bail bondsman is a pure rent-seeker and does essentially nothing to guarantee that the accused appears for trial. Even in juridictions where the bail bondsman does forfeit the bond, the tendency to jail people for very minor offenses for which the possible punishments are small is more a product of successful lobbying by the bail bondsman industry than it is a means to ensure a defendant’s appearance at trial.

Here, as everywhere, if we can screw you, we will screw you.

Methinks April 18, 2012 at 10:46 am

What you describe in your post is disturbing, But, again, this is more of a government created problem rather than a deficiency of the market. Who has the power to require the bondsman to forfeit the bond? The government, not the bondsman. Who has the power to jail people for minor offenses? The government, not the bondsman. What entity does the bondsman lobby to create rents for himself? The government.

Who keeps the government in check? As far as I can tell, nobody.

It’s disturbing.

Neal April 18, 2012 at 11:32 am

“Who keeps the government in check? As far as I can tell, nobody.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QlztK6yrDUg

Doc Merlin April 18, 2012 at 10:16 pm

“Who keeps the government in check?”

In the modern day justice system, (common law didn’t used to be this way) government typically is defending someone, trying them and also prosecuting. Its a farce.

athEIst April 18, 2012 at 10:32 am

Return to 18th century jurisprudence–hang everyone for almost anything.

Cliff April 18, 2012 at 12:52 pm

This was NOT 18th century jurisprudence. All felonies were punishable by death, but there were only 6 felonies! Nowadays everything is a felony.

Becky Hargrove April 18, 2012 at 10:32 am

Alex thank you so much for this important post, now I really need to stop while I’m ahead!

Dana April 18, 2012 at 10:44 am

It’s funny to me that these facts are generating such outrage at this supposed haven for market-oriented rationality. The proper administration of justice is a public social good and should be financed as such–by the whole society, with public funds. The fees everyone here is railing against are a manifestation of the market-based solutions the libertarian crowd proposes for everything. In the absence of tax revenues the state turns to “voluntary” contributions–the fees people pay for choosing to commit crimes. Aren’t high fees an appropriate deterrent to crime? The higher the fee (“the price”) the fewer the number of criminals (“customers”), right? If you can’t pay the fee, you shouldn’t have committed the crime. (Or to reference another viewpoint popular on this blog, if the banks couldn’t afford their risky investments, they should have been allowed to fail because only by experiencing the financial consequences of their actions would they learn anything…)

Of course, applying market-based “solutions” to public-interest problems like criminal justice is absurd. Turn criminality into a profit-making opportunity and you’ll have new and creative ways to turn people into criminals.

Ian David Moss April 18, 2012 at 11:02 am

+1000 to Dana. So I suppose everyone on this comment thread is game for having their state taxes raised to pay for public defenders for the poor? Recall that many of the fees mentioned are “revenue enhancers.” And before anyone suggests cutting social programs instead, news flash: this IS a social program.

Methinks April 18, 2012 at 11:19 am

Ian, how many of these people are collared for drugs or other non-violent victimless crimes? Why not just stop criminalizing breathing air and watch the cost of the criminal injustice system plummet?

Roy April 18, 2012 at 12:08 pm

Personally I am game. Seems like a far better expense than most of the overrated crap every state I’ve lived on wastes money on. I can’t think of any libertarian I know who objects to paying for the costs of maintaining the courts. Libertarians are after all people who specifically state a preference for maintaining the apparatus of law rather than anarchy.

Becky Hargrove April 18, 2012 at 1:22 pm

I worked in a public defenders office years ago, so I know that more money would just be gamed by everyone. Am only saying things need to be done differently so that the poor can work again and be able to take care of themselves.

JThomas April 18, 2012 at 11:08 am

I have yet to see any libertarian advocate for such fees. Perhaps you can name one–but I doubt it. Or are you just trying to use this as a club to try to discredit other “market-oriented rationality”? The market is not the solution for all of society’s problems. Wow, that blew my mind. Thank you for such wonderful insight

Bill April 18, 2012 at 11:09 am

Dana, You might also add that the prices and costs were applied even before the person was convicted or not. And, certainly charging money to the visitor of an inmate is not charging the prisoner any cost, but someone else.

Greg G April 18, 2012 at 11:13 am

Good points Dana. It is because of their aversion to paying for public services through taxes that politicians and voters are increasingly approving of these criminal justice “fees” as an alternative to raising the same money through taxes.

chuck martel April 18, 2012 at 11:25 am

“. The fees everyone here is railing against are a manifestation of the market-based solutions the libertarian crowd proposes for everything. ”

You’re 180 degrees out of synch. The “libertarian crowd” is opposed to government sanctions on the free exchange of goods, such as drugs, that are the impetus for the incarceration of a majority of convicts. Statists such as yourself, like to give the impression that prisoners are all murderers, when, in fact, many of them are violators of politico/economic standards on which even lawyers and judges disagree. Then their punishment extends for the rest of their life. This is called civilization.

Tim April 18, 2012 at 11:31 am

Your point would be valid if the fees that people are asked to pay are valid. Unfortunately, many of these fees have little do with the actual crime and are imposed merely to feed the behemoth. For example, for a drug offense, you have to take drug awareness classes, you have to pay for the classes. The class doesn’t help reform the person. To society, it’s a liberal feel-good pat on the back. To the criminal, it’s just another hoop you have to jump through to get your freedom back.

TallDave April 18, 2012 at 11:36 am

A government-imposed fee is not a “market-based” solution, and virtually no libertarians think this a good idea.

Andrew' April 18, 2012 at 12:23 pm

No, I’d prefer not to have my taxes raised so the government can wrongly enforce wrong laws.

But it’s not an either-or, is it then?

It’s always funny when non-libertarians try to explain it to me.

Ricardo April 18, 2012 at 12:18 pm

The issue is not that libertarians have personally and explicitly helped introduce these sorts of fees. To be blunt, libertarians simply are not important enough in the political sphere to effect such change by themselves even if it was something they favored.

Rather, it is the broad alliance among people on the libertarian-conservative spectrum that centers around anti-tax populism that holds the blame. Logically, if you are going to cut taxes — which large numbers of libertarians and conservatives do favor — without cutting spending and we are talking about states with balanced budget requirements, the pressure to look for non-tax revenue increases dramatically. This is what you get when you demand immediate tax cuts without insisting on spending cuts to go along with them.

Since tax cuts are extremely popular in the U.S. and are already a part of mainstream policy while drug legalization will probably never happen, it is incumbent on libertarians to get their heads out of the clouds and do something more than just complain about how that wasn’t what you had in mind.

Andrew' April 18, 2012 at 12:24 pm

Seriously?

We simply can’t have reasonable fees (let alone drug legalization) so the only solution is to increase taxes so that the unreasonable fees will magically go away?

For real?

Roy April 18, 2012 at 12:26 pm

Has the statist left forgot how useful it was to gull libertarians into a united front against the statist right so quickly? Believe me I was once president of my university’s Libertarian club, libertarians are easy to dupe, and honestly I can’t see how we are anywhere near enough to relevance to give y’all any benefit from so aggresively demonizing libertarianism.

Of course it might just be that the statist left is so ideologically bankrupt that they are afraid of losing followers to the libertarian menace…

Wow, I am suddenly starting to wonder if we are on the right track after all.

Dan Weber April 18, 2012 at 12:21 pm

Mount Rushmore effect.

The government wants more money, claims that the taxpayers are too stingy, and so exacts its pound of flesh in the most painful way possible to punish the taxpayers.

A functioning justice system — including providing for the rights of the accused — is a prime responsibility of a government. For non-national governments, it’s probably the single most important. Every other thing is less important. People can survive with a few less cops on the street, a few less teachers in the classroom, a few less firefighters in the station, a few less workers at the DMV, a few less aides for the governor. They cannot survive against a justice system that charges them to be charged, pardon the pun.

If you think you can’t afford a good justice system, it means everything else has been cut to 0.

Roy April 18, 2012 at 12:29 pm

Actually the whole anglo norman adversarial justice system we inherited was originally based on expanding the reach of the king’s justice to collect more fees from the parties brought to law. It was pretty much completely extractive back in the 12th and 13th century. So it actually seems like a pretty solid model if you don’t worry about kleptocratic tyranny.

Bill April 18, 2012 at 4:41 pm

Dan, Might it be we (instead of somthin called the govment) who elect people who run on these platforms and enact these laws?

The Force Majeure April 18, 2012 at 11:07 am

“Many of these charges are not for any direct costs imposed by the criminal but have been added as revenue enhancers.”

The Force Majeure April 18, 2012 at 11:10 am

Stupid interweb; that was supposed to be a response to Dana.

Dana April 18, 2012 at 1:16 pm

In response to Force Majeure and those above I have to say I don’t see how we can distinguish between “direct costs” and “revenue enhancers” and I don’t think we’d really want to when it comes to criminal law. Let’s say I’m out of town for a few days and while I’m gone someone steals my car for an unknown period of time and then dumps it a few blocks from where they found it. A hubcap is broken and most of the gas is gone. What is they direct cost of this transgression? $200 to get a new hubcap and fill up the tank? Plus whatever it costs to file a police report. I found the car easily and didn’t even lose the opportunity to use it since I couldn’t while I was out of town. But I expect the law imposes a much harsher penalty because, you know, discouraging the stealing of cars is a important social good regardless of the “direct costs” involved.

Let’s take a more mundane example, something I witnessed at Target a few months ago. Someone shoplifts a $200 watch and is caught. The police are called. What are the direct costs of this? The time cost to store security, for the police to come to the store, “investigate”, transport and book the suspect, for the whatever lawyers and judges are involved. The direct costs could be quite high, maybe in the thousands of dollars, but the fine or punishment for petty theft is probably less than this, or should be. The important thing is that the punishment fit the social cost of the crime, which may well have nothing to do with the the dollar value of crime itself or the cost of its prosecution.

The Other Jim April 18, 2012 at 11:08 am

Your Government has zero love or concern for the poor.

The only time they will laughingly pretend otherwise is when a Democrat wants to argue against reduced spending/taxes, or when any politician is flat-out begging for votes.

Getting money out of the poor and middle class is the Government’s absolute favorite thing to do, because there are so freaking many of them. The key, obviously, is to refer to them as something else. Such as “defendants” or “energy users” or “people who have an incredible time entertaining themselves at our fun, lavish casinos — book your trip now!!”

TallDave April 18, 2012 at 11:33 am

Yep. And you haven’t even touched civil forfeiture yet.

The prison-industrial complex is Leviathan’s ugliest limb.

Marian Kechlibar April 19, 2012 at 2:43 am

In my opinion, the incentives for jailing people should be balanced against incentives for freeing people, so that the entire balance should be zero, or epsilon around zero.

If there is incentive to free guilty people, it ends with criminals roaming the streets.

If there is incentive to jail people in general, a new slavery develops. Prison-industrial complex is just a modern word for a new type of slavery. Old plantation owners in the Caribbean used prison workforce directly, and it was called slavery – justly so. The modern system isn’t that different, with the exception that the taxpayer actually covers much of the bureaucracy costs.

Dana April 18, 2012 at 12:51 pm

I’m really not in a position to cite “any libertarian” because I have a job and can’t take the time to comb through even just the statements of the millions of libertarians on the interwebz to see if one has argued for raising fees & penalties to replace tax revenues, though it seems likely to me some libertarian somewhere has probably advocated it. But that’s not really the point. The point is that most libertarians (certainly all the ones that I know) oppose taxation generally and support politicians and policies that favor tax cuts without much regard to the actual policy effects of the inadequate revenues that result. And raising criminal penalties to make up the difference is an appealing solution for to those with anti-government views because while criminals chose to violate the law, taxes are viewed as an oppressive and autocratic imposition on law-abiding citizens.

Cliff April 18, 2012 at 1:00 pm

Well then I guess the only solution is for “libertarians” to make an about-face and start lobbying for higher taxes?

TallDave April 18, 2012 at 1:01 pm

There’s a thing called Google that does that. Anyways, I’m sure if you look hard enough you can find someone somewhere arguing the Moon is made of blue cheese, but the vast majority of libertarians oppose these kinds of fees; you can find oodles of statements from Reason and CATO to that effect.

Fees and taxes are both coercively obtained. Libertarians would tend to argue spending should be reduced, because so many of those laws are wrong to begin with.

MoD April 18, 2012 at 1:10 pm

I award you no points for the ideological turing test (http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2011/06/the_ideological.html)

You should quit before you really start to lose

Andrew' April 18, 2012 at 2:34 pm

“User fees”

Not “Abuser fees”

Andrew' April 18, 2012 at 2:34 pm

Seriously, not to be condescending, but is the difference between a justice system and a toll road really that mystifying?

TallDave April 18, 2012 at 12:53 pm

BTW, all this stuff is pretty obviously a violation of our due process rights. But since it benefits the criminal justice system, judges won’t rule against it. Yet another instance of America falling from rule of law to rule of lawyers.

Andrew' April 18, 2012 at 1:38 pm

Wait, that can’t be. We have democracy and democracy is awesomely accountable and such clearly unpopular and unjustifiable things could not stand in an awesomely accountable democracy.

(note to self, paste this under 12 other comments starting with B.B.’s)

B.B. April 18, 2012 at 1:08 pm

Great post.

I would add two more things.

First, child support is a debt implicitly. Failure to pay child support or alimony can land a man in jail. If he is unemployed? Tough.

Second, asset forfeiture laws are in the same class. Someone can be arrested for drug dealing, found not guilty, but still have assets confiscated by the police and not returned.

Superheater April 18, 2012 at 1:14 pm

The problem with this post is that it has a grain of righteous indignity but buries it in a field of ignorance and ideology.

I live in Pennsylvania and used to be an employee of the Department of Corrections. I agree that these add-on charges, such as the “judicial computer project” are nothing but endless money grabs. Also, nobody should be assessed any penalty without a conviction. On this we agree.

The JCP has been assessed on traffic offenses at least since the 1980’s, when I got my first traffic ticket, from a Pennsylvania State Police Officer. By now, the judiciary should have been computerized for years. Incidentally, if you see a “statey” travelling less than 75mph, take a picture-it would be as important as a picture of “Big Foot”, for the same reason. The routine flouting of the law by its enforcers should be offensive, as well.

That having been said, when you complain about the charges levied against inmates, you show an astounding overreach beyond your area of competence. Had your opinion based upon actual familiarity with correctional activities, it would be more informed.

All of the charges you cite “room and board and for telephone use, haircuts, drug tests, transportation, booking, and medical co-pays” are all costs of incarceration. Inmates, by and large, are overwhelmingly incarcerated for good reason. If there’s a principal reason for criminality, it is not from poverty of money, it’s a lack of responsibility, enculturation and habituation and willingness to break the law.

The first step in rehabilitating criminals is to remind them that there is a cost of living, and they need to pay for it, through payments received voluntarily and from lawful activities. As a result, inmates are provided with the opportunity to work, in a variety of jobs both directly through the DOC as well as a captive entity, Pennsylvania Correctional industries. Their earnings are kept in trust, for these expenses. (Cash in a prison is a recipe for trouble, and is prohibited)

At least in Pennsylvania, the fees assessed are nominal. Sixty dollars for a parole hearing is far less than the cost of conducting it, and ensures that appeals are genuine and well-prepared, not frivolous or malicious attempts to waste time and get out of the normal environment for a day. As inmates always seem to have money for the commissary purchases, your concern that they are without resources is misplaced.

As for your statement that it’s “It’s difficult to argue against criminal justice fees for those who can pay, but for those who cannot”, this shows astounding indifference to the concept of equality under the law. Moreover, making a determination that ability would place an enormous burden on the judiciary and be a source of endless frivolous litigation.

Sleazy P Martini April 18, 2012 at 2:35 pm

Wow, I never thought I’d say something like this, but you’ve brought me to it:

Go to hell, you fucking nazi.

Adam Baum April 18, 2012 at 4:19 pm

Well if you can’t argue the substance or even imagine a different point of view, you can always resort to profanity and call somebody a “Nazi”.

Sleazy P Martini April 18, 2012 at 4:58 pm

Suck my motherfucking dick!!!

Adam Baum April 18, 2012 at 10:29 pm

Do it yourself, I’m sure you’ve tried.

Andrew' April 18, 2012 at 2:39 pm

“I agree that these add-on charges, such as the “judicial computer project” are nothing but endless money grabs. Also, nobody should be assessed any penalty without a conviction. On this we agree. ”

Yes, and the examples you refer to Alex was not saying were as egregious as the obvious ones you agree with. He was pointing out how the accrued charges for those “reasonably assessed fees” will result in re-incarceration when all a person did was be re-incarcerated while he could have been out working a job and earning the money to pay the “reasonable” fees.

Ricardo April 19, 2012 at 1:47 am

Superheater, the relevant question for charging convicts various “user fees” is how much they get paid for their work duty. My impression is that many states pay absurdly low wages to inmates for their labor. What is the going hourly rate in Pennsylvania?

This creates a racket where the state imposes financial obligations on inmates and then also gets to set the wages that they earn to pay for these fees. Sometimes prison labor is sold to private companies which creates massive problems in terms of incentives.

And to the rest of you, grow up.

Superheater April 19, 2012 at 11:35 pm

It is extremely low. but for two reasons. One, the ordinary expenses everybody else incurs as the result of living are provided, of sorts. Second, the wages have to be low enough to stay under IRS filing requirements.

Its foolish to assume inmates are employable “outside”. One problem is employer reluctance to hire those with criminal records, the second is that many inmates don’t know the requirements of working (Showing up when you don’t feel like it, not calling the boss a a-hole when he or she really is, not “borrowing” company property). Wages are always the result of productivity-inmate labor has low productivity because of the intensive supervisory oversight and instruction required.

chuck martel April 18, 2012 at 1:25 pm

When you have an incumbent New York state representative running in opposition to liberalization of drug because it would cut prison guard jobs with good health benefits in upstate New York, as happened a couple of years ago, you have striking evidence of a system of institutionalized evil. It’s not generally a consideration any more, but the celebrated Salem witch trials of the late 17th century were not an exclusively religious phenomenon. The trials and subsequent hangings were authorized by the national government of the time. If a scintilla of freedom somehow survives the metastisisation of the state, this era will be recognized as a tyranny of immense proportions. Hopefully, those that fight this monster will be remember much as the Free French of the 1940s are today.

Methinks April 18, 2012 at 3:05 pm

Good Lord! I knew I got the hell out of that state for a reason.

Superheater April 19, 2012 at 11:38 pm

Methinks, glad to see you had a “1776″ from NY and have a new home on the internet too.

Doc Merlin April 18, 2012 at 10:21 pm

“you have striking evidence of a system of institutionalized evil.”

Aka a state.

Greyner April 18, 2012 at 1:40 pm

Tall Dave

I don’t know if you have any firsthand familiarity with Iraq or Blackwater, but your views are naive. Officially Blackwater was not conducting its own offensive operations, but they essentially were there own bosses when they were out on the streets. They were truly cowboy mercenaries.

former Marine

Andrew' April 18, 2012 at 2:40 pm

He says they could only “defend themselves.”

Yes, and if I find you in my kitchen at midnite, you’ll be “defending yourself” for damn sure.

NL_ April 18, 2012 at 4:33 pm

The bullying angle is really obvious here, because the victims are disproportionately of little or no income and don’t really get much sympathy from elected officials (whose bread is buttered by people with jobs, not by criminals and the poor). But it’s not really any different from how the government treats small businesses, who get hit with all manner of fees and taxes for minor permits.

Warren Meyer pointed to the best example of a useless hassling fee: the Kentucky egg license. A $5 fee to sell eggs, which includes no regulation or inspection, but nonetheless carries a $100 daily penalty for non-compliance.

Hassling fees are standard procedure for the government. The injustice is just in starker relief when levied on the poorest.

Bill April 18, 2012 at 4:43 pm

And, if they are convicted of a felony, they don’t ever vote.

Bill April 18, 2012 at 5:24 pm

NL- Often businesses are lobbyists for these regulations.

Ask yourself: was it more or less likely that another business would like to raise entry barriers than consumers raising the barriers.

Who do you think favors the $5 egg permit–the egg processor who doesn’t want farmers selling eggs at farmers markets, or someone in government seeking $5 fee when it costs more to collect the $5 than it makes in collecting it.

You can see the same thing in cheesemaking, fluid dairy, etc. It is the industry, and not consumers, who lobby for the regulation. To protect the industry’s reputation, of course.

Bill April 18, 2012 at 7:25 pm

NL-Regarding eggs, I think you might want to consider why such a regulation is in place.

1. If there is a salmonella outbreak, public health services want to know who is selling eggs.
2. A small charge would cover registry in a database.
3. A small charge would also cover sending information on food safety to egg handlers.

When you get this type of story, you might want to step back and think about how you would identify who is the source of contaminated eggs and who you would contact if there were a public health issue. I’m not saying this is the best approach, but it is something you might want to think about in the balance.

Another Rahul April 18, 2012 at 5:28 pm

This has got to be the end-product of 1) a high cost low productivity government employee base + 2) the inability of most governments to raise taxes to pay for their cost base. In such a situation, any group with low political power will get fleeced for revenue any which way possible. The two most popular groups to be fleeced are non-citizen immigrants and law-breakers. Also interestingly, the two groups who mostly can’t vote (at least for those convicted of felonies). Yes this is a public policy disaster, short term government revenue for long term social cost. The US isn’t the only place with this problem. The UK has it too in a milder form (think outrageous parking penalties, fees for late filing of taxes, immigration charges).

Abersouth April 18, 2012 at 6:15 pm

Just read through all the comments.

Does anyone know a good book or two about debtors prisons in the history of North America that turned into the states? I keep looking at the first sentence in the post and getting hung up on the phrase “supposed to”. I agree with the sentiment, but who said that the states were supposed to be that way, and if it was the founders, why didn’t they make it more explicit? I am looking for context. Were the prisons nigh universally reviled?

Bill April 18, 2012 at 7:29 pm

Actually, you might want to look up the history of consumer bankruptcy, and recent changes to the bankruptcy code.

You can have debtor prison in place when there is no dischargeability or fresh start.

Elizabeth Warren has written on this.

Dana April 19, 2012 at 2:07 pm

Abersouth: there are a few books on the history of the law of creditors and debtors in the U.S. The best (dry) reference is Peter Coleman, Debtors and Creditors in America. On insolvency/bankruptcy the best books are: Bruce Mann, A Nation of Debtors; Edward Balleisen, Navigating Failure; Elizabeth Thompson, Reconstruction of Southern Debtors. The only history of the 1898 Bankruptcy Act–the statutory framework from which our current law descends–is Charles Warren, Bankruptcy in United States History, which you can find on google books.

Your question, and Bill’s response, highlights something none of the other commenters mentioned (including myself), which is that Alex is fundamentally (and deliberately?) misconstruing the idea of debtor’s prison and conflating it with criminal incarceration. Debtors’ prison was outlawed by the states (there never was federal debtors’ prison) because over time society came to the conclusion that government incarceration was an inappropriate remedy for disputes between individuals and/or corporations/institutions who freely and mutually entered into a financial/contractual relationship. As others here have pointed out, the “debtors’ prison” Alex irresponsibly conflates with actual debt-related imprisonment refers to instances where people who have committed crimes against society (violated their “social contract”) cannot afford settle their “debt” to society with money and *instead* are required to pay that debt with community service or jail time.

Manu Oquendo April 18, 2012 at 7:43 pm

What this article portrays is a collapsing system. The entropy level is so high that the tidal wave looms over the Rocky Mountains and brings back memories of the morning after Little Big Horn. Long overdue.
Ashby’s law is catching up with us.

Falstaff April 18, 2012 at 8:31 pm

Alex: Thanks for raising this issue. It has to stop.

John David Galt April 18, 2012 at 8:50 pm

Can any of the lawyers here point us to the actual law that banned the debtor’s prison? Because it clearly needs to be revised and the loopholes plugged. And it may need to be done at the state level.

Ricardo April 19, 2012 at 12:31 am

I’m not a lawyer but in the U.S., I believe the abolition of debtors’ prison went along with the uniform bankruptcy code. However, bankruptcy does not necessarily need to apply to debts owed to the state. Henry David Thoreau was famously jailed for refusing to pay his taxes and Americans can also be sent to jail for failing to pay fines or child support.

Will Pflaum April 18, 2012 at 9:17 pm

If ex-felons can’t get a job, then many of them depend on drug sale work. As there are so many people in this situation, the price of labor selling drugs falls, as does the street price, making drugs more available and increasing drug use, leading to more people with no options but to sell drugs, further driving down the price.

It’s a theory. Even if it is not true, you do not want to have a huge pool of unemployable people. But you also don’t necessary leap at the chance to hire an ex-felon: at least, I don’t. Although, I did have a great employee with a drug conviction who could not pursue his dream of being a kindergarten teacher, due to felony conviction. He was great with kids, a great worker, honest… and he’s a carpenter now making good money having moved on from my entry level job. But he would rather teach kindergarten. I absolutely would like him to teach my own kids. A stand up guy. When he was 22 he sold some pot. He never cheated anyone when he sold pot. He’s honest.

B April 19, 2012 at 12:44 am

This is a catch-22. If someone can’t pay fees they go to jail where they cost the city, state and federal government even more money. Overall, this is a money losing scheme, as incarceration costs more than the fees collect.

Legal Scholar April 19, 2012 at 1:59 am

AFWIW, under English (American) Common Law, talking back disrespectfully or refusing to answer a judges questions (unless you are protected by the Fifth Amendment) can result in a contempt of court citation, and jail time, for an indefinite amount of time. There was even one case where a defendant refused to tell a judge what his offshore bank account number was (which would have been a crime in the offshore country, to tell), and spent months in jail. The legal fiction or theory behind this (that you can be jailed for an indefinite period of time) is that the “accused has the keys to their own prison” meaning by complying with the judges orders you can free yourself. Another case involved a brave lawyer for Coca-Cola who I believe spent a few nights in jail for contempt because he refused to divulge the secret formula behind the drink Coca-Cola. So this is not really news for anybody in the legal field.

Harley April 19, 2012 at 2:11 am

I hate this country (USA). I wish I hadn’t been born here.

JWE April 19, 2012 at 3:10 pm

There’s the door; don’t let it bruise your butt on the way out.

Falstaff April 19, 2012 at 11:49 pm

I don’t go for the suggestive prescription : LEAVE.

Marian Kechlibar April 19, 2012 at 2:58 am

I am a strong opponent of the system “once a felon, always a felon”.

It makes sense for terrorism, murder and kidnapping, but not for felonies like “driving outside a road in a national park” or “embezzlement of USD 400″.

With over 3000 felonies, people can effectively lose their right to self-defense (buying and keeping guns), vote, job access, for a lifetime – and for trivialities.

In the continental system, convictions are expunged after some time, if one leads a lawful life after discharge from the prison.

If America adopted such system, it wouldn’t hurt anyone. Habitual offenders will never get their records expunged, as they will re-offend. One- or two-time offenders can be re-integrated into the society. All benefits, no losses.

chuck martel April 19, 2012 at 12:28 pm

Throughout history even the most repressive tyrannies have celebrated amnesties where prisoners were released in large numbers. There may have been many different motives for this but nonetheless is was done, and still occurs. But not in the US, where criminals that are convicted and sentenced in one jurisdiction for periods up to life are then extradited to another jurisdiction where the same process results. All for the aggrandizement of bureaucrat attorneys.

Today 65 year old convicts are given terms of eighty years for non-violent crimes. My contention is that these felons should serve their entire term, EVEN AFTER DEATH. Their cell should continue to contain their body, perhaps mummified, until the expiration of the sentence, just as Lenin was preserved in a Kremlin shrine. That’s the only right thing to do. We can’t know that releasing their deceased remains won’t put innocents at risk.

Mike H. in Spokane April 19, 2012 at 2:32 pm

Are you living in Baghdad?

Mike H. in Spokane April 19, 2012 at 2:33 pm

My last comment was in reply to Andrew’.

Right Wing Nutter April 19, 2012 at 3:05 pm

These are rights, not fee for service.
Amendment VI

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.

SDN April 19, 2012 at 3:15 pm

So no government contract with an official’s signature, and a budget passed by Congress (We had budgets before the Copperheads took over in 06) was involved? Blackwater just did it on their own dime?

Somewhere, a village is glad it’s missing it’s idiot.

elkh1 April 19, 2012 at 3:55 pm

Is it unconstitutional charging the accused a fee to assess a public defedant? What’ll they do if he doesn’t pay? Let him rot in jail without a trial? Execute him for murder without a day in court?

Mighty glad we don’t execute a convicted murderer with bullets any more, else they’ll charge the familiy the cost of a bullet as they do in China.

Thor April 19, 2012 at 5:16 pm

You know what’s not mentioned here? The lack of access by the poor to justice, regarding some of these felons we are talking about. I had a relative in the States (I no longer live there) who had most of his money embezzled. He was a senior, who lost his house, after he was coerced into giving power-of-attorney to two private nurses he hired. He wasn’t poor, but he became poor!

When we — his closest relatives — tried to get charges pressed, we were told: “hire a lawyer”. So these habitual offenders (convicted of elder crimes) basically got away with it. Hard to believe, but true.

Buck Bradley April 19, 2012 at 6:32 pm

“It’s difficult to argue against criminal justice fees for those who can pay…”

HOGWASH! I pay taxes. If your going to charge me a fee to provide me with government, DO NOT TAX ME. If you are going to tax me, YOU HAVE NO RIGHT TO CHARGE ME A FEE FOR SERVICES I HAVE ALREADY BEEN TAXED FOR!!! YOU HAVE NO RIGHT TO CHARGE THE TAX-PAYING SERFS FOR THE PRIVILEGE OF BEING GROUND INTO THE DIRT BY YOUR IRON BOOT!!

M. Simon April 19, 2012 at 6:54 pm

OK. The law has deterrent effect. I propose the Death Penalty for Jay Walking.

Foster Boondoggle April 21, 2012 at 6:27 pm

Larry Niven beat you to it by 40 years… http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Jigsaw_Man

Robet April 20, 2012 at 1:55 pm

Its people working through government? The government is comprised entirely of people. “Government” is nothing more than an aggregate concept describing a group of ungoverned persons responsible for “governing” people. So, yes, is is very much the government doing this.

theworldisevil April 22, 2012 at 9:15 am

I’m starting to like the terrorists extremely much right now.

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