This commentary originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman on August 10, 2016.
Neither big banks nor prison inmates would win a popularity contest, but those exiting prison did score a recent victory against JPMorgan Chase. On August 2, the nation’s largest bank settled a suit for $450,000 brought by former prison inmates who claimed unfair charges on their debit cards. The bank charges were on cards that discharged federal inmates received to hold their remaining commissary balance contributed by family members and earnings in prison jobs and included a teller fee, an inactivity fee and a balance inquiry fee.
Putting this settlement aside, it is governments, not banks, which impose the lion’s share of financial penalties on offenders. While there is a legitimate role for fines and fees, their use has skyrocketed over the last few decades, with the penalties appearing to be more tied to generating revenue for government rather than legitimate public safety purposes. For example, in Philadelphia 1 in 5 residents owe an average of $4,500 in unpaid fines and fees.
The proliferation of financial obligations imposed by the criminal justice system poses several problems. First, it leads to unnecessary incarceration at a great cost to taxpayers. Some 20 percent of those in county jails are there because they failed to pay a fine or fee. Certainly, those who have the means to do so should pay what they owe and most of us would gladly do so rather than take a trip to jail. However, as many as 80 percent of defendants are indigent. Jailing someone who cannot afford to pay still doesn’t produce the money but in the process costs taxpayers $80 a day for the jail cell.
Another problem is that reliance on revenue from fines and fees distorts incentives, leading to the misallocation of public safety resources. Instead of spending time solving serious crimes, police may instead focus on civil asset forfeiture or enforcing warrants issued for failure to pay fine-only misdemeanors. For example, in Ferguson, Missouri, there were an average of three warrants per household, mostly for traffic and other minor misdemeanor offenses. In fact, one woman was arrested on a warrant for failure to pay a fine for an overgrown lawn, which should not be a criminal offense to begin with.
Alternatively, the police chief in Dallas, David Brown, cut traffic fine collection by more than half from 2007 to 2013, reallocating officers to crime fighting while seeing no increase in traffic fatalities or accidents.
Unfortunately, in Texas, probation department directors have admitted, because they rely on probation fees for more than half of their budgets, they must keep individuals on probation who no longer need supervision but regularly pay their fees in order to subsidize those who need supervision but are not current on their payments. It’s right for those who received probation and have the means to do so to help defray the taxpayer cost of their supervision. However, in many states, someone can be revoked from probation to prison partly or entirely or failure to pay fees. Let’s ensure there are options such as payment plans and community service for those who are unable to pay.
In addition, excessive financial penalties can undermine self-sufficiency. About half of all states suspend driver’s licenses of those who owe criminal justice debt. In Texas, too many drivers have lost their licenses due to the Driver Responsibility Program through which multiple convictions for common moving violations, such as speeding and failure to signal, lead to license suspension unless the person can afford thousands in surcharges to maintain their license. No one objects to taking those off the road who persistently drive in a drunken or reckless manner, but it is wrong to link the ability to drive to the ability to pay. Worse, when people lose their licenses, they either drive without one, which means committing another offense while likely also being uninsured, or they forgo employment opportunities that require a car. By making it harder to work, government policies like the Driver Responsibility Program actually perpetuate the cycle of poverty and recidivism.
Just as inmates held a big bank accountable, we must now hold our own government accountable by ensuring fines and fees are reasonable and work to improve public safety, not merely be for the sake of generating revenue.