Facing Doubts About Court Fines, Lawmakers Take Questions To Heart

Jun 4, 2014
Originally published on June 4, 2014 7:18 pm

U.S. lawmakers and judges are feeling some urgency to solve the same problem: how to stop sending people to jail simply for failing to pay court fines and fees, often because they're too poor to afford them. Policymakers react to a recent NPR investigation into the issue.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Robert Siegel. An NPR investigative series has put new pressure on judges and lawmakers to make the justice system more fair. The series was called Guilty and Charged. It detailed how people who were too poor to pay their court fines and fees often end up in jail. The court costs are typically in the hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars. Since our reporting, there's been reaction from public officials. Here is Roger Goodman, a state representative in Washington state.

REPRESENTATIVE ROGER GOODMAN: A number of my constituents, and even colleagues in the legislature, called me after they heard the first NPR segment all fired up. Like, we've got to do something about this - this is a shame.

SIEGEL: NPR's Joseph Shapiro has more.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Goodman, the lawmaker in Washington state, had already called key leaders together to talk about the issue next week. There's long been law and a Supreme Court ruling, that says judges can't jail people who are too poor to pay court fines and fees - only if they can pay, but refuse.

GOODMAN: I've heard some terrible stories, egregious situations where people who are are under this great weight of having to pay fines and fees are rendered homeless and are sleeping in a public park and are picked up in the park and brought to jail for quote-unquote "willfully not paying their fines and fees." That to me is what we call debtors prison. And that is a shame, we shouldn't have that in this country.

SHAPIRO: Other states, too, are starting to pay attention. Colorado last month passed a law that stopped city courts from sending people to jail simply because they're too poor to pay court fees. In February, Ohio State Supreme Court issued similar instructions. And tomorrow, in Michigan, court officials and others will meet to talk about how to determine who is too poor to pay court costs.

JOHN HOMAN: There are certainly questions about the fairness of the system.

SHAPIRO: That's Judge John Homan, he runs Michigan's state court administrative office. He says judges want guidance - how do they tell when someone is truly too poor to pay and when should judges use alternatives to jail, like waiving fees or assigning community service.

HOMAN: The law is clear that if you don't have the ability to pay that you can't be ordered to pay. Frankly, that's what part of this ability to pay work group is about - is to educate the judiciary, educate court administrators on best practices for determining one's ability to pay.

SHAPIRO: In Michigan, NPR found a man who went to jail after he didn't pay his fines and fees when he caught a fish out of season. Another man who got charged $1,000 in court costs, some of it to underwrite the security and heat at the courthouse and for the employee's fitness gym. Homan notes that some fines and fees are mandatory, they're set by the State legislature. But some judges who don't like collecting fees, blame the Court administrative office that Homan runs. It sends judges spreadsheets noting how much they've collected and makes instructional videos.


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: First, you will see what you don't do in the courtroom - followed by what you should do in the courtroom to communicate the expectation of payment.

SHAPIRO: Telling judges how to collect more fees, but how to do it properly. In other states, in Georgia and Alabama, courts have stepped in. Last month, a federal judge in Alabama told the city of Montgomery to stop jailing people for unpaid traffic tickets without first determining whether they really were too poor to pay or simply refuse to pay.

ALEC KARAKATSANIS: Our plaintiffs, many of them are sitting at home on a Friday or a Saturday or a Sunday evening with their children and the police come and arrest them and haul them off to jail.

SHAPIRO: Attorney Alec Karakatsanis, cofounder of the civil rights group Equal Justice Under Law, brought the lawsuit.

KARAKATSANIS: They appear in court, from the jail, and they're told that they owe a balance of fines, fees, costs and surcharges to the city of Montgomery.

SHAPIRO: City officials have been told to appear at a court hearing on June 30 to explain how they will make sure that people don't go to jail simply because they're too poor to pay their court fines and fees. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.