The Fines and Fees That Keep Former Prisoners Poor

States and counties have upped the amounts they charge defendants, saddling those getting out of jail with huge amounts of debt they have little hope of paying off.

Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

Life after prison can be a huge challenge—and this is definitely true when it comes to money. The formerly incarcerated often have trouble finding work and stable housing because of prohibitions against people with criminal records. But some of the biggest financial challenges for the formerly incarcerated may stem directly from their crimes.

Increasingly, jurisdictions across the country are assessing hefty court fines and fees, called legal financial obligations (LFOs), on  defendants, requiring them to pay thousands of dollars or face more jail time, according to Alexes Harris, the author of A Pound of Flesh: Monetary Sanctions for the Poor. Harris talked to one woman who was a victim of domestic violence and spent eight years in the prison system for shooting the father of her son. She’d been assessed $33,000 in LFOs, but 13 years after her conviction, despite minimum monthly payments she made, interest had brought her debt to $72,000.

Legal financial obligations “reinforce poverty, destabilize community reentry, and relegate impoverished debtors to a lifetime of punishment because their poverty leaves them unable to fulfill expectations of accountability,” Harris writes.  Many people who end up in jail are poor already, and unable to pay even the smallest sanctions. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, 57 percent of men ages 27 to 42 earned less than $22,500 a year before they were locked up, suggesting that earnings after would be even lower.

Incomes of Men Ages 27 to 42

Because they are frequently unable to pay fines, the formerly incarcerated are often forced to pay punitive, high interest rates on those fines. The mental burden of accumulating debt on a low or non-existent salary is a high one, Harris says.

The interest charged on LFOs can be prohibitive for some former prisoners, adding thousands of dollars on top of the fines and fees they already can’t pay. For instance, on average, people in Washington State were sentenced to LFOs of $1,347. But that amount can increase significantly if individuals can only pay $5 a month. Many realize they may never pay off their LFOs, according to Harris.

The uptick in LFOs comes as states look for ways to pay for their corrections system while facing other revenue shortfalls. The fees levied on the formerly incarcerated include bench-warrant fees, filing-clerks fees, court-appointed attorney fees, crime-lab analysis fees, DNA-database fees, jury fees, and incarceration costs. They come in different forms: Fines are fixed financial penalties for given offenses, fees are charges for costs of using the justice system—and surcharges are levied on top of those—as a percentage of the total cost. States also charge for restitution and the cost of collection, and add interest surcharges for people on payment plans.

The percentage of prison inmates with court-imposed monetary sanctions exploded from 1991 to 2004, according to a study by Harris, Heather Evans, and Katherine Beckett. In 1991, just 25 percent of inmates reported receiving court-ordered fines and sanctions, by 2004, 66 percent did.

And those fines continued to get more and more costly. The Victim Penalty Assessment in Washington State, for example, grew 1,900 percent between 1977 and 1996.

States are also adding on costs and fees to recoup money  unrelated to a prisoner’s actual sentence. The Arizona legislature, for example, created a “felony surcharge” added onto former prisoners’ bills in 1994.  Now, in addition to paying court fees and restitution, prisoners are also charged a surcharge, ostensibly to cover costs of the system. The legislature keeps upping the amount surcharge, which by 2012 had reached 83 percent. So if a former prisoner owes $1,000 in fines and fees, he pays an additional $830 to the state.

These fines and fees vary dramatically by state. Though all 50 states allow fines to be levied upon criminal conviction, the maximum fine for felony conviction ranges from $500 in Massachusetts to $500,000 in Alaska.

What’s more, in 44 states, former inmates can be re-incarcerated if they “willfully” fail to pay their fees. But the determination of whether an individual is “willfully” trying to make payments is very much up to judges; some judges decide that a former prisoner’s inability to get a job can constitute a lack of willful attempts to pay feesresulting in him ending up back in jail and facing even more fines.

Harris breaks down the data for Warren County in Washington State, and finds that it costs $2,292,094 for the county to issue LFOs and punish people for not paying them, and that the amount of money recouped from LFOs is just $3,362,903. Perhaps most frustrating: Most of the money collected from LFOs goes not to restitution or to the community. It just goes to run the collections system.

That’s in part because counties and states collect so little money, and partly because the money collected is used for rising costs of running courts and other tasks associated with incarcerating more people. “Not only is the system financially inefficient,” Harris writes, “but meeting the needs of victims takes a back seat to filling county coffers.”