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In Pennsylvania, Defendants Pay A Fee Just To Plead Guilty

The ‘plea fee’ stems from a state law passed in the 1980s and can cost nearly $200, depending on the county.


In Pennsylvania, Defendants Pay A Fee Just To Plead Guilty

The ‘plea fee’ stems from a state law passed in the 1980s and can cost nearly $200, depending on the county.

On Dec. 16, 2017, Fairview Township Police in York County, Pennsylvania, arrested then 34-year-old Dustin Wyar after he was found intoxicated and in possession of a small amount of marijuana in his car in the parking lot of a local diner.

He ultimately pleaded guilty to charges of possession of marijuana and possession of drug paraphernalia, and was sentenced to 12 months and 30 days’ probation. Wyar was also ordered to pay nearly $1,000 in fines and fees, more than $160 of which went toward a “plea fee.”

Similarly, in 2016, a Cumberland County woman pleaded guilty to three retail thefts, in which about $25 in merchandise was stolen, and was then hit with nearly $600 in plea fees.

Depending on the county, Pennsylvania’s plea fee can cost a criminal defendant nearly $200. The plea fee is exactly what its name suggests: a fee for the simple act of pleading guilty. It stems from a state law passed in the 1980s, and it must be at least $20 and no more than $75. County clerks of court set the initial fee within that range but have the discretion to increase it every three years, which is why it has risen to $164 in York County. A slightly more costly trial fee is imposed if a defendant chooses to go to trial and is convicted. Money derived from the fee is meant to fund county clerks of courts, independent elected officials who oversee and maintain records from the criminal justice system.

“We’re funding public offices by taxing the poorest people, but it doesn’t show up as a tax,” John Pfaff, a professor at Fordham University School of Law, told The Appeal. “It shows up as a fee. It allows our taxes to look more progressive than they are.”

Data Visualization By Matt Henry

As is the case with most criminal court fees, Pennsylvania’s plea fee is disproportionately leveled against poor people. In 2015, more than $900,000 in plea fees were imposed in York County, according to a review of all criminal dockets by The Appeal. More than $570,000—or roughly 60 percent—of those fees were charged to people who were represented by a public defender.

Plea fees were assessed on nearly 80 percent of all new cases in York County that year. The Appeal reviewed the York County budget and found that the fee  could be eliminated with a small tax increase. The clerk of courts office could be fully funded with a less than 1 percent tax increase, which would raise the average real estate tax bill less than $10 annually.

But even if the plea fee is eliminated, there are still other fees that can be imposed on Pennsylvania defendants. For example, if a criminal case is dismissed, a state rule allows the imposition of fees and restitution.

The Appeal also identified numerous cases in York County where criminal charges were dismissed but the defendant was still assessed a plea fee. In several cases, the plea fee alone accounted for more than 40 percent of what the defendant had to pay to the court.

The stress of debt tacked on to a defendant’s criminal court proceedings makes it more likely that they will commit a new offense, Pfaff said. “Everybody’s ability to control their behavior declines with stress,” he added. “You don’t understand what it’s like to suffer under crippling poverty, and if you’re spending every minute thinking about how are you going to pay next month’s rent or how are you going to get food for your kids, all while having to pay this additional fine on top of that, it makes it harder for anyone to self-regulate.”

Data Visualization By Matt Henry

Failing to pay court debt can have other serious consequences, too. In Pennsylvania, a defendant can have their driver’s license revoked, face a civil judgment and debt collection, or even be put in jail for failing to pay court-imposed debt.

A recent Pittsburgh Post-Gazette investigation found that in 2016 more than 4,500 cases where defendants were jailed for failing to pay their court debt in Pennsylvania. More than 340 of those cases were in York County.

People say “‘don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time,’” Pfaff said, “but that completely ignores our decision to underfund social services across the board, which contributes to people criminal behavior.”

Economists say more guns and less regulation caused the crime spike of the ’90s

Economists say more guns and less regulation caused the crime spike of the ’90s

What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: Economists say more guns and less regulation caused the crime spike of the ’90s

  • Case of intellectually disabled teen falsely accused of sex offense reveals registry flaws

  • Louisiana law enforcement officers are moonlighting for a controversial pipeline company

  • Arizona lawsuit exposes ‘the darker side of diversion

  • When Westlaw teams up with ICE

  • White officer testifies in own defense after killing Black teen

  • Trump administration wants to penalize immigrants who use Medicaid

In the Spotlight

Economists say more guns and less regulation caused the crime spike of the ’90s

What caused the spike in America’s murder rate in the late 1980s and early 1990s?  And why did it drop so precipitously after? Two new academic papers question the theory that crack cocaine was the culprit. The drug theory posits that dealers used violence to defend their businesses, and users committed crimes to feed their addictions. But the economists behind the new papers say that this can’t fully explain why the spike in crack use was so deadly, or why murders fell in the mid-’90s. “Instead, they argue, a boom in handgun production and possession gave the crack years their fatal character—until new restrictions on firearms reversed the trendlines,” according to The Trace. “What’s striking about the gun market is you get these surges in production,” said economist Geoffrey Williams. “The production booms were followed by surges in killings.” [Alex Yablon / The Trace]

In a working paper, Geoffrey Williams and W. Alan Bartley argue that a “supply shock” of low-priced pistols in the 1980s and early ’90s led to higher levels of gun homicide among young Black men. During those years, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives loosened oversight of the gun industry and a group of Los Angeles-based manufacturers known as the “Ring of Fire” expanded the market for “Saturday Night Specials”: bottom-of-the-barrel firearms. In a separate working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in July, economists William Evans, Craig Garthwaite, and Timothy Moore examine an exception to the crime drop: The murder rate for young Black men remains 25 percent higher than it was before the crack epidemic. The reason, they posit, is the lasting effects wrought by increased access to and demand for firearms during the crack years. [Alex Yablon / The Trace]

Experts have generated a multitude of theories. “The prosperity thesis argues that crime rates fall when economic conditions improve and rise when the economy sours,” writes Neil Howe for Forbes. But although “this reasoning seemed to explain falling crime rates during the economic boom of the late ’90s, it doesn’t explain why crime continued to fall during the recent recession.” A theory that the death penalty deters criminals is demonstrably false, since capital punishment has been in steep decline for two decades while crime rates have continued to fall. “Others credit a larger police presence and improved policing tactics. Yet if this were the main driver, we would expect to see dramatic city-by-city differences based on which cities implemented these new tactics—but we don’t see much variation.” [Neil Howe / Forbes]

A comprehensive study by the Brennan Center for Justice concluded that “over-harsh criminal justice policies, particularly increased incarceration … were not the main drivers of the crime decline.” In fact, “increased incarceration has been declining in its effectiveness as a crime control tactic for more than 30 years. Its effect on crime rates since 1990 has been limited, and has been non-existent since 2000.” More important, the authors conclude, were “various social, economic, and environmental factors, such as growth in income and an aging population.” They also attribute some success to the introduction of data-driven policing. [Oliver Roeder, Lauren-Brooke Eisen, and Julia Bowling / Brennan Center for Justice]

Freakonomics fans are familiar with the abortion theory, which holds that in 1994, when the crime rate started to drop, there were fewer 21-year-olds on the street because 21 years prior, in 1973, abortions became legal under Roe v. Wade. It is one of the few theories that has empirical support from other countries. But there are reasons to doubt: Women did get abortions before Roe, and some were still unable to get them afterward. And in the 1990s, the crime rate went down among many age groups at once, not just among people born in 1973 or later. Crime continued to decline in the 2000s, after the Roe v. Wade generation was out of prime criminal age. [Dara Lind and German Lopez / Vox]

“Historians agree that the crime wave of the 1960s and 1970s had a lot to do with the baby boom: There were more young men than ever before, and young men are the people who commit most crimes,” writes Dana Goldstein for the Marshall Project. “As the boomers aged out of trouble in the early 1980s, crime fell.” But during the period of the crime decline from 1992 to today, there has been no significant decrease in the number of young men. “Some experts believe the growth in the population over the age of 50 has contributed to better public safety, because there are more adults monitoring young people’s behavior,” but this effect is most likely small if it exists at all. Another thesis would attribute a drop in crime to technology such as air conditioning and television, which brought people into their homes. Technology has also made cars more difficult to steal, and the introduction of debit cards means people carry less cash. [Dana Goldstein / Marshall Project]

One of the more popular theories in recent years attributes crime to lead. The ban on lead paint and leaded gasoline, awareness about lead in water, and general lead abatement efforts all decreased lead exposure particularly among children born from the mid-1970s to the late 1980s. This correlates strongly to the cohort of children who hit peak criminal age in the 1990s and 2000s. The “data suggests that these specific cohorts were less likely to get arrested for crime,” according to Vox. “Given that there’s a body of psychological research tying lead exposure to more aggressive behavior, it’s likely reduced lead exposure played a role in reducing arrests and crime.” And unlike other theories, evidence also comes from other developed countries, which have had parallel experiences. [Dara Lind and German Lopez / Vox]

Stories From The Appeal

Edgar Coker with his parents at University of Virginia School of Law in 2014.  [University of Virginia School of Law]

Case of Intellectually Disabled Teen Falsely Accused of Sex Offense Reveals Registry Flaws. Before Edgar Coker was exonerated in a rape case, he underwent therapy meant to prevent sexual reoffenses. Thousands of kids involved in sexual offenses are forced into therapies like “relapse prevention” that experts say are ineffective. [Joseph Darius Jaafari]

Louisiana Law Enforcement Officers Are Moonlighting for a Controversial Pipeline Company. Off-duty law enforcement officers are using state resources to work side jobs for the pipeline company. [Karen Savage]

Stories From Around the Country

Arizona lawsuit exposes ‘the darker side of diversion’: The lawsuit, filed by Civil Rights Corps, “says the county attorney’s office falsely told people charged with first or second marijuana offenses … that they could be imprisoned,” writes Shaila Dewan for the New York Times. “In Arizona, they cannot.” The suit also alleges that “defendants who could pay the full $950 or $1,000 fee for diversion, plus the cost of drug tests, could be finished in three months, while those who needed more time to pay had to stay in the program longer, thus racking up more costs.” Katie Chamblee-Ryan, a lawyer with Civil Rights Corps, said, “The consequences are the worst for the poorest people in the program,” who “risk being expelled from the program and prosecuted for a felony just because they can’t afford a drug test.” The Maricopa County attorney’s office called the lawsuit “self-indulgent.” According to their written statement, the “outrageous characterization proffered by the ironically named ‘Civil Rights Corps’ is ill-informed and misguided.” [Shaila Dewan / New York Times]

When Westlaw teams up with ICE: Legal research companies like Lexis and Westlaw are selling surveillance data and services to ICE and other law enforcement agencies. It is time to consider the ethical implications of these actions, writes Sarah Lamdan in a forthcoming article for the N.Y.U. Review of Law & Social Change. “Other industries focus on supply chain ethics to ensure that their products and practices comply with their ethical standards,” she writes. The Model Rules of Professional Conduct and the American Bar Association have not yet addressed these issues but “lawyers must ensure that their non-attorney vendors follow ethical standards that comply with the rules of professional responsibility.” [Sarah Lamdan / N.Y.U. Review of Law & Social Change]

White officer testifies in own defense after killing Black teen: Roy Oliver, the former police officer who fatally shot 15-year-old Jordan Edwards took the stand last week in his own defense. Oliver is charged with murder for killing the ninth-grader as he sat in a car leaving a party in Balch Springs, Texas. Moments before Oliver fired, someone had heard gunshots in the neighborhood, although they turned out to have nothing to do with Jordan or his friends. Oliver told jurors that he felt compelled to shoot because he feared a fellow officer was in danger of being run over by the car Jordan was in, which he said had stopped but then moved forward. According to prosecutors, no one was ever in danger until Oliver fired five times and continued to shoot as the car, driven by Jordan’s brother, drove away. Oliver was “conversational on the stand,” according to the Dallas Morning News. “He didn’t lose his temper. At least two jurors nodded as he spoke.” [Jennifer Emily / Dallas Morning News]

Trump administration wants to penalize immigrants who use Medicaid: The “public charge rule” requires officials to take into account whether an immigrant is “primarily dependent on the government for subsistence” in considering an application to become a permanent resident. It doesn’t mean a person will get deported but it does put legal immigrants’ future status in limbo. As a result, many opt out of benefits, and it could get worse. Draft revisions to the rule proposed by the Department of Homeland Security would cover a much wider range of benefits including Medicaid and other noncash benefits like the Children’s Health Insurance Program, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, healthcare under the Affordable Care Act, and early education programs like Head Start. A DHS official called public benefit use by immigrants deeply unfair to U.S. taxpayers, claiming that nearly 3 in 4 voters want newcomers to be financially self-sufficient. [Kadia Tubman / Yahoo News]

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you tomorrow.

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Here Are the Criminal Justice Issues Andrew Cuomo and Cynthia Nixon Should Debate

From policing to parole, this election could be pivotal for reform.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and challenger Cynthia Nixon.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Here Are the Criminal Justice Issues Andrew Cuomo and Cynthia Nixon Should Debate

From policing to parole, this election could be pivotal for reform.

For advocate Bill Bastuk, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s sign-off on a prosecutorial conduct commission last week marked the culmination of nearly a decade of lobbying. Though funding and appointments have yet to be determined, the commission is designed to consider allegations of misconduct against any of the more than 60 district attorneys across the state. “The DAs did everything possible to squeeze him to veto this bill,” said Bastuk, who founded the nonprofit It Could Happen to You after his 2009 acquittal on charges of raping a 16-year-old girl. “I think what did send a message to the governor was this broad bipartisan support.”

For many criminal justice reform activists, the commission is a rare bright spot. New York recently became the 49th state in the country to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 17. It’s one of only 10 states where prosecutors don’t have to hand over most evidence to the defense until trial, and more than eight percent of the state’s prison population is in solitary confinement—close to double the national average.

So often with Cuomo, says Peter Goldberg, executive director of the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, “We see measures that do something but don’t go nearly far enough.”

Now, in the lead-up to New York’s gubernatorial primary on Sept. 13, activists tell The Appeal that they have appreciated challenger Cynthia Nixon’s willingness to take their cues. “The sense that I’ve gotten is that she wants to sit down with the people most affected by this issue … and say, ‘Look, how can we fix this?’” says Nick Encalada-Malinowski, civil rights campaign director for VOCAL-NY. “Cuomo has certainly never sat down with people I know.”

Still, the criminal justice system in New York is so “devoid of any semblance of justice,” that truly effective reform will require looking beyond issues currently garnering headlines, said Steve Zeidman, a professor at City University of New York School of Law. For example, beyond the closure of Rikers Island and pre-trial reforms, he says he’s hopeful tomorrow’s gubernatorial debate will also touch on decarceral strategies like clemency and parole, which Nixon has brought to the fore, as well as human rights abuses at maximum security prisons across the state.

“The question is how high can we aim?” Zeidman said. “A governor can set a tone. They can use the bully pulpit, and say, ‘I’m going to keep talking about this issue until there’s a bill on my desk.’”


“Cynthia’s platform [is] cognizant that New York hasn’t taken even a measured step towards addressing the school-to-prison pipeline,” says Kesi Foster of Make the Road Action, explaining the nonprofit’s decision to endorse Nixon. He praises her for condemning metal detectors and police officers in schools; by contrast, last September, Cuomo announced the deployment of state troopers to 10 Long Island high schools he deemed a “breeding ground” for gangs including MS-13.

Overall, Foster added, Nixon “seems to acknowledge that there are longstanding structurally racist issues in policing.” She believes that recreational marijuana should be legal, while Cuomo has inched towards legalization without a full throated endorsement.  . She also supports the repeal of Section 50-a of the New York State Civil Rights Law, which police departments use to justify withholding officers’ disciplinary records, as well as existing legislation that would make certain low-level offenses ticketable, rather than arrestable. Her platform highlights the Police-STAT Act, legislation that would require the state to track arrests by race, age, and gender; she supports codifying Cuomo’s 2015 executive order naming the attorney general as a special prosecutor in police killings, and would expand it to include cases where the civilian was believed to have had a weapon, or did not die despite the alleged use of deadly force.

Yet Hawk Newsome, president of Black Lives Matter of Greater New York, told The Appeal that the Black Lives Caucus has not endorsed a gubernatorial candidate and does not plan to. Stressing that he speaks for himself and not his organization, he bemoaned feeling “stuck between a rock and a hard place.” While the special prosecutor executive order could be strengthened, he said, Cuomo still “did something that was really helpful.” Meanwhile, Nixon hasn’t met with his organization, and he hasn’t seen her campaigning in the Bronx (Nixon’s team cited three visits to the borough, including a canvass kickoff in early June). “Cynthia is supposed to be anti-establishment candidate, but … we’ve been in the streets and I don’t see her people,” he said.


“We started off the legislative and budgetary state year with a lot of hope—hope for bail reform, hope for discovery reform, hope for speedy trial reform—and didn’t get anything,” Tina Luongo, attorney-in-charge of the Legal Aid Society’s criminal defense practice, stated earlier this month.

In January, Cuomo proposed ending cash bail for people charged with misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies. For the first time in his seven-year tenure, he also called for discovery reform, demanding that defendants have access to evidence including witness names and statements and grand jury testimony ahead of trial (New York is one of a minority of states whose discovery laws give prosecutors a significant advantage, considering 98 percent of felony arrests that end in conviction never make it to trial.) Yet while public defenders say they appreciate Cuomo elevating the issue, they were frustrated to see loopholes emerge, apparently at the behest of the powerful District Attorneys Association of New York. Cuomo ultimately passed over existing legislation that had the support of Legal Aid and the New York State Bar Association, insisting on a “right of redaction” of witness information for prosecutors. Discovery reform fizzled, as did speedy trial proposals.

Akeem Browder, brother of Kalief Browder, who took his own life after three years of incarceration at Rikers Island for a crime he did not commit, said he is endorsing Nixon because he thinks Cuomo is opportunistic. Cuomo brought Browder on stage during his State of the State address in January, and “made a promise to me in my brother’s name” to pass pretrial reforms, he recalled. After these reforms failed to materialize, Browder says, Cuomo’s counsel, Alphonso David, asked him to participate in an endorsement video for the governor. “If that’s not just insight into how he really feels about or communities,” Browder told The Appeal. (A Cuomo spokesperson blamed the Republican-majority state Senate for the failure of the reforms.) Now, he points to Nixon’s proposal to abolish cash bail regardless of the arresting charge, and her support of Kalief’s Law, a 2015 bill that would prevent prosecutors from dragging out pretrial detention with frivolous declarations of unreadiness for trial. “It’s time for a change,” he says.


“I’ve heard Cuomo say time and and time again two things,” says Dave George, associate director of the grassroots group Release Aging People in Prison. “One, that we’ve raised the age of criminal responsibility to 18. And the second thing he says a lot is that he’s closed more prisons than any other governor.”

The former is an “embarrassment,” George argues, considering New York was among the last states to do so. The latter, while admirable—Cuomo’s office says he has closed 24 facilities in his tenure—excludes maximum and super-maximum prisons. A spokesperson for Cuomo’s re-election campaign confirmed to The Appeal that closing Rikers Island is a priority should Cuomo win a third term, along with pretrial and re-entry reforms. Similarly, Nixon’s platform states that she is “prepared to ensure that her administration … uses every available power to force the closure of all facilities on Rikers Island.”

“It’s critical for whoever occupies the Governor’s office to close upstate prisons, as well,” said Jared Chausow, a policy specialist at Brooklyn Defender Services, in a statement to The Appeal.

Cuomo announced a settlement with the New York Civil Liberties Union in 2015 intended to significantly reduce solitary confinement for teenagers, though a report from the Marshall Project in March found it’s still common practice outside New York City. Whereas Nixon has pledged to abolish solitary confinement by executive order for people of all ages, and codify it by supporting the HALT Solitary Confinement Act. Chausow notes that doing so shouldallow for the closure of New York’s two supermax prisons, Upstate and Southport.

Beyond abolishing solitary, there are needs for expanded medical care, mental health services, and recourse for survivors of assault by officers, activists said. They expect a lot of the governor, considering the Commissioner of the Department of Corrections and Community Service reports directly to that office. “It’s positive that [Nixon] has been raising a number of issues that are important to peoples who are incarcerated,” said one activist who requested anonymity in discussing electoral politics because they work for a nonprofit. “But there are other important issues that need to be addressed” in prisons “ripe with abuse, brutality, and racism.”


At an event at the Fortune Society this month, Nixon called out Cuomo for his approach to clemency—including pardons, which expunge a person’s criminal record post-release, and commutations, which shorten or end sentences. “He is very spare with them, as opposed to say, someone like [Governor] Jerry Brown in California,” she said. Despite 2015 reforms expanding access to free legal counsel for clemency applicants, Cuomo has granted just 12 commutations since taking office. (His father, Mario Cuomo, issued 37 in three terms, The Appeal recently reported; Governor Brown once issued 19 in one day.) He has been more liberal with pardons, including more than 18 for New Yorkers at risk of deportation, and, conditionally, more than 100 for New Yorkers convicted of nonviolent crimes in their teens.

We have 10,000 people serving life sentences, and that’s where the governor has to zero in on,” says Zeidman, who has filed more than 30 commutation applications with his CUNY Law students.

Nixon’s platform prioritizes commutation for all survivors of gender-based violence who are convicted after acting in self-defense. According to her staff, she was inspired by the work of Survived & Punished, a grassroots prison abolition group. Zeidman would like to see Nixon expand her commutation priorities beyond survivors of gender-based violence: a goal that is “both long overdue but also problematic” because other prisoners serving life sentences are implicitly excluded.


George, the associate director of RAPP, says Nixon’s interest in parole reform has been refreshing. “For a long time we’ve felt alone,” he says. “This issue is [historically] only brought up in really high-profile cases where the police unions and conservatives are against it.”

Nixon’s platform echoes recent RAPP recommendations to appoint more Parole Board commissioners with backgrounds in rehabilitation, like social workers and nurses. Cuomo appointed six new commissioners in this vein last June, and RAPP says release rates have since increased to 37 percent from 24 percent. Yet the board is still understaffed, with 12 commissioners out of a possible 19 overseeing 12,000 cases annually. Nixon has also singled out Commissioner W. William Smith, the board’s longest-serving commissioner, who Cuomo reappointed last year despite opposition from 19 senators. (Smith has a reputation for denying parole for those with violent crime convictions regardless of age, health status, and other factors.)

Cuomo’s election year gestures on parole reform have been fairly typical, as George sees it: “Big press releases, nice talking points, but not so much substantive policy.” This winter he proposed “geriatric parole” for gravely ill prisoners over the age of 55 who have served at least half of their sentences, with exclusions for certain criminal convictions. The legislation did not survive budget season. In April, Cuomo garnered positive headlines for an executive order restoring voting rights for parolees. But closer inspection shows it’s up to the DOCCS Commissioner to submit a list of parolees monthly to the governor’s office. Voting rights are then granted on a case-by-case basis.

By contrast, Nixon has endorsed existing legislation that would empower the board to assess every prisoner over the age of 55 who has served 15 years. “It’s great, but it’s tepid,” says Zeidman, who would like to see parole hearings for all prisoners who have served a chunk of their sentence, regardless of age. “Go further.”

Correction: This story has been updated to note that the governor’s office, not DOCCS, decides which parolees will be granted the right to vote.

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