Arizona really needs to check out the Clapham Set if we're serious about saving money. Looks like such a model would also help us save lives, reducing both incarceration rates and victimization. Unfortunately, punishment in the American system of Capitalist Justice pays off for politicians and corporations far more than public safety does. Furthermore, brutalizing people in this country is a contact sport - a form of entertainment - that we can't seem to get enough of, so it's easily justified by otherwise "decent" Americans who just never give these issues critical thought.
That we have failed to pursue evidence-based sentencing reform options in the state legislature thus far (thanks Ron Gould, for blocking that from being heard in the Judiciary Committee) suggests there are motives at work that have nothing to do with cutting the budget, promoting public safety, facilitating rehabilitation, restoring justice, or any of the garbage legislators claim when they're running for office with promises to be"tough on crime". Too many people are profiting from our continued vulnerability - they're banking on us being raped, murdered, robbed, or otherwise victimized tomorrow so they can make another buck from punishing the perpetrators. We will never have safe communities so long as this is how our criminal justice policy is driven.
Please contact your state legislators and push to put evidence-based sentencing reform on the table in the next session.
By TINA ROSENBERG
Fixes looks at solutions to social problems and why they work.
On Tuesday, I wrote about the Clapham Set, a Boston program that works with recently released prisoners. It asks judges to waive their court fees if the prisoners complete an academic course and work with a coach who helps them get jobs and services they need to turn their lives around.
The cost of putting debtors in jail far outweighs the money collected.
Surly and Old, from Virginia (5) expressed surprise that the program was needed at all. “I’m at least a thousand years old, and this is the first I’ve heard that states burden ex-cons with debt just as they’re trying to re-start their lives,” he wrote.
The fees levied on prisoners are put there by state legislatures who have found a group few people will stick up for. But this is short-term thinking at its finest. For example, a report on the issue by the Brennan Center for Justice studied Mecklenburg County in North Carolina, which in 2009 arrested 564 people for failing to pay their debts and jailed just under half of them for several days before their hearings. The cost of jailing them — even for a short time — far outweighed the money eventually collected.
“Look at the cost of year in jail for just one person,” said Rebekah Diller, an author of the report. ($30,000 per year is the low end.) “If this only drives a few people back into the system you’re already undermining any revenue you might raise.”
These debts would seem to drive more than a few back into the system. Probation officers are the front line people pushing probationers to pay, and one of their most effective weapons is the threat of arrest. But this drives probationers into hiding if they don’t have the money. “They end up going underground, not fulfilling their probation requirements because they can’t fulfill the court fees,” said Abrigal Forrester, a program coordinator for StreetSafe Boston, which does gang intervention and other work to help reduce crime in tough neighborhoods. If you skip your meetings with probation, you are probably going back to prison.
In most cases, you can’t get off probation until the debt is paid. Here’s a vicious circle: the longer probation lasts, the more money you owe. Nor are fees waived for indigence in the vast majority of cases. The Brennan Center found that of the 15 states with the largest number of prisoners, 13 of them charge fees for using public defenders — charging clients who are indigent by definition. For sheer outrage, perhaps nothing beats the story told by a reader, Kate Levine of New York (36), of an indigent client she represented as a student lawyer. All charges were dismissed. Let me repeat: the client was not convicted of a crime. But she was still assessed $150 in court fees. This is not an infrequent occurrence.
The American Civil Liberties Union also wrote a report on the subject last fall about five states’ criminal justice fees. It found that Louisiana, for example, charges people hundreds of dollars for programs such as rehab that are a condition of their probation. Probationers who can’t pay the charges drop out of the program — and are then sometimes arrested for violating the terms of probation.
The current system of fees not only cheats taxpayers, its constitutionality is questionable.
The debt also makes it harder to get a legitimate job. Anyone convicted of a drug crime in Massachusetts, for example, loses his driver license. He cannot get it back until the debt is paid. Many states suspend someone’s license as a penalty for missing payments. In most of the country, holding a job is next to impossible without driving.
The system not only cheats taxpayers, its constitutionality is questionable. Debtor’s prisons were abolished in the United States in the early 1800s and the Supreme Court has ruled it is unconstitutional to jail someone for failing to pay a debt. Courts get around the ruling by arguing that they are jailing people not for debt but for violating a court order. Charging people for using a public defender violates the spirit, if not the letter, of Gideon v Wainwright, the 1963 decision requiring state courts to provide counsel for criminal defendants who cannot afford it. Many states also block ex-offenders from recovering the right to vote until all fees are paid — making the fee effectively a poll tax.
Several readers wondered whether these fees are part of a conspiracy to keep the prison-industrial complex in business. Others wrote that they are a symptom of the risky politics of being anything less than hard-line on crime. “The motivation behind our criminal ‘justice’ system isn’t correctional; it’s punitive,” wrote Martha Shelley (12) from Portland, Ore. “That’s why prisoners and their families are charged exorbitant fees when they phone each other, when every study shows that a prisoner who maintains strong family ties is much less likely to re-offend,”
My view is that the imposition of more and more fees is simply a reflexive reaction from state legislators who haven’t focused on how counterproductive they are. But with states drowning in prison costs — and California under Supreme Court order to lessen prison overcrowding by shedding more than 30,000 inmates — it would be helpful for them to figure it out.
Obviously, one solution to this problem is to fund court systems through taxes, the way other government programs are funded. It would certainly be cheaper for taxpayers. The Clapham Set program, while small and new, points the way to another possible solution. It is an idea similar to one we’ve written about before in Fixes: conditional cash transfers. These are programs, in use in dozens of countries but employed on the widest scale in Mexico and Brazil, that give poor people welfare payments if they keep their children in school, take the family for health checkups and attend workshops on health issues. Different countries use conditional cash transfers for different ends — to encourage people to get H.I.V. tests, for example, or to improve family nutrition.
Read previous contributions to this series.
The Clapham Set gives its clients more choices than conditional cash transfer programs do. The men enrolled in it can choose the activities they need most, be it drug treatment, schooling or job search help, and the Clapham Set will seek to get credit from judges for those activities. (Another difference: it has two dozen clients, rather than hundreds of millions.) But the basic template is the same.
For the past several decades in America, the debate about the underclass, poverty and criminality has centered in large part on whether it is possible to change an immediate-gratification mindset into one that looks to the future. People who care little about the long-term consequences of their actions, even for themselves, are likely to stay mired in poverty and crime. It is not the only reason, but it is a major reason. Ironically, another important reason for the persistence of the underclass is a similar lack of future orientation on the part of policymakers. Our political system tilts in the direction of scrimping now, even if it will cost us more later. Court fees are a perfect example. If politicians want to help people on the margins of society acquire more future orientation, they might try developing some themselves.