The Price of Justice

The fees and fines the White House says are crippling the criminal-justice system.


“When I was a kid,” Grover Norquist said, “my parents always said, ‘If you have trouble, if you have a question, go to the policeman. He’s your friend.’

“I never heard it said about IRS agents,” he continued, “and yet we’ve turned, at the local level, a lot of the police force into tax collectors.”

On Thursday, Norquist, the founder of Americans for Tax Reform, spoke at a White House forum on poverty and incarceration. The motley crew of speakers—Norquist, along with Attorney General Loretta Lynch, actor Michael B. Jordan, and David Simon, the creator of the HBO show The Wire—called for reforming the way the criminal-justice system doles out monetary penalties, which often hit the poor hardest.

Those penalties—fines for infractions, fees for operational costs, and bail—render justice unjust, reform advocates say. If someone is unable to pay, extra penalties can spiral into debt, ultimately costing much more than the initial fine. And that perpetuates the cycle of poverty.

Norquist cited California’s fees for falling behind on parking tickets, which often result in suspension of a driver’s license. On top of a $100 base fine for a suspended license, the state tacks on 10 fees, including a state penalty assessment ($100), court operations assessment ($40), and DNA fund ($50). The real cost of a suspended license, then, comes to $490. And if you can’t afford that? In the end, the fees for failing to appear or pay on time amount to $815.

“The poor are actually paying more and being punished more in the criminal-justice system than are those with means,” Samuel Brooke, the deputy legal director at the Southern Poverty Law Center, told National Journal.

Those extra fees can spiral into mounting debt. But they can also lead to what Brooke calls “modern debtors' prisons.”

There’s an “alarming tendency to courts throwing up their hands when people aren’t able to pay and saying, ‘If you’re not able to pay, then we’re gonna put you in jail,’” he said, explaining that each day in jail pays off a portion of debt. “This is locking people up simply because of their poverty.”

The time in jail can be “incredibly destabilizing,” he added: “You might have someone who is living paycheck to paycheck, they are working a minimum-wage job, and now they’re going to lose that job because they were caught up with a fine that they owed of $200 that they can’t pay off.”

That person, now unemployed, might have a family relying on him or her, and that family suddenly doesn’t have a source of income. Glenn Martin, the founder of JustLeadershipUSA, which advocates for halving the prison population by 2030, told National Journal that these fees don’t just punish the offender.

“When we punish people, we actually punish everyone,” Martin said. “What it does is create a situation where not only the individual goes home saddled with these fines and fees, but the entire family now has the burden of paying off these fines and fees. So the impact is so much broader than just the individual. It’s punishing entire families.”

The conversation around criminal-justice reform has been spurred in part by the release of a damning Justice Department report on the Ferguson Police Department earlier this year. That report found, among other searing conclusions, that officers wielded arrests and tickets as revenue generators rather than in service of public safety.

The spiral of fines from small infractions mired residents in the Missouri town, where an officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager in August 2014: One woman who once parked her car illegally in 2007 was arrested twice, spent six days in jail, and paid $550 to a city court as a result of that one offense. Though the original ticket was $151, missed court dates and fine payments—which triggered separate fees—meant that in 2014, she still owed $541.

The White House event—which brought conservative Norquist to the same lectern as White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett—illustrated criminal-justice reform’s appeal across ideological lines. The Coalition for Public Safety, a campaign to make the system “smarter, fairer and more cost effective,” counts among its members groups who can’t agree on much else: the liberal Center for American Progress and the American Civil Liberties Union, along with the conservative-owned Koch Industries and Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform. The issue is also gaining bipartisan traction on Capitol Hill, where a Senate bill that would reduce mandatory minimums for a slew of drug crimes was cosponsored by tea-party stalwart Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, among others.

Criminal-justice reform has become a central piece of President Obama’s second-term domestic policy agenda. Just this fall, Obama called on Congress to “ban the box” requiring job seekers to disclose their criminal background on applications and granted early release to more than 6,000 federal inmates. In July, he became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison, meeting with six inmates at the El Reno facility outside of Oklahoma City. And he’s been blunt in his stance that the criminal-justice system “remains particularly skewed by race and wealth.”

At the White House, Lynch echoed this outlook, calling the criminal-justice system’s fines and fees “the criminalization of poverty.”

“What is the price of justice?” she asked at Thursday’s event. The error in that question, she said, “is in thinking of justice as a commodity that can be quantified rather than a right inherent to all who stand under the sheltering arm of our Constitution.”