New book explores the legal debt that comes after prison
Throughout his life, Nick has battled mental illness and an addiction to crack cocaine. He was convicted three times in the 1990’s for offenses that are characteristic of someone struggling with addiction, and served more than four years in a Washington State prison. But despite his fierce desire to remain sober and gainfully employed since then, bipolar depression and addiction have pulled him in another direction. He hasn’t been able to hold a job or find stable housing, cycling between homelessness and crashing at a friend or relative’s house. He also hasn’t been able to pay over $3,100 in legal debt he owes the state — fines and fees imposed on him for his involvement in the criminal justice system. As a result, he’s been thrown in jail multiple times for nonpayment.
Nick and other people in his position are profiled in Pound of Flesh: Monetary Sanctions as Punishment for the Poor, a new book by Washington University professor Alexes Harris (watch Professor Harris discuss her work here and here). Zooming in on five Washington counties, the book sheds light on fines and fees — also known as legal financial obligations (LFOs) — that haunt poor people long after they’ve completed sentences for their crimes. It also describes the actors in the criminal justice system who impose and enforce these payments: prosecutors and judges who don’t think prison, probation, and community service is punishment enough.
Harris sifted through 3,300 court cases, conducted 50 interviews, and observed courtroom proceedings to assess how debtors are surveilled and penalized for much of their lives. Besides serving their sentences, defendants in Washington must make a mandatory minimum payment of $600 for every conviction (a $100 DNA collection fee and a $500 victim penalty assessment.)
On top of that fees can be imposed for victim restitution, crime lab analysis, requesting a trial by jury, pleading out, probation monitoring, drug and alcohol treatment and assessment, supervision, and electronic monitoring. Fees are required for time behind bars (incarceration in Washington costs prisoners $50 per day), and there are crime-specific fees for domestic violence and drug use. Moreover, people are forced to pay collection fees and interest.
Discounting restitution, Harris found that the average LFO for a Washington defendant is $1,300. Among the people she interviewed, the average legal debt owed was $9,000. And regardless of their inability to pay, people like Nick are thrown in jail over and over again for nonpayment.
It doesn’t have to be this way, but judges and prosecutors are choosing to damn people to a lifetime of poverty and involvement in the criminal justice system.
“[Prosecutors] have a great deal of discretion in what they’re asking for,” Harris told the Fair Punishment Project. “What I observed in the courthouses is that generally there was a common amount that prosecutors ask for and judges gave. It was never negotiated or discussed.” In fact, Harris writes in her book that its title was inspired by a prosecutor who admitted he wanted to “screw” and collect “a pound of flesh” from an unnamed defendant.
One district attorney admitted to Harris that prosecutors’ “personal belief systems” influence their LFO requests. They often view failure to pay as failings of character and signs of laziness. They’ll subsequently ask judges to issue bench warrants or impose additional fines because people are intentionally dodging payments — decisions that discount conditions of poverty, mental illness, addiction, and other factors that impede people’s ability to shell out hundreds or thousands of dollars. Nason, another debtor described in the book, was jailed for 60 days because a prosecutor claimed — and a judge agreed — there was no evidence that he’d tried collecting aluminum cans to make money and pay his fees. Nason was homeless and his sole income came from food stamps.
One prosecutor explained to Harris: “[They] collect their food stamps and they collect their other stuff and I don’t know what all. If in fact an individual’s been on drugs or they come in under the influence, whether it’s under drugs or alcohol, that stuff costs money, it’s not free. So they’re getting money to spend it somewhere.”
Harris’ findings come at a time of heightened scrutiny of prosecutors and the role they play in incarcerating poor people — particularly how they push for draconian bail payments that keep indigent defendants behind bars long before trial. But fewer people seem aware of the costs that come after a conviction. The reason for this isn’t clear-cut, but Harris thinks the story of Kalief Browder resonated with people in a way that a story like Nick’s has not. “The human face was put on this and you could really see the prosecutors’ lack of caring and how bail really was the problem in his case,” she said.
At age 16, Browder was arrested and charged for allegedly stealing a backpack. Unable to pay $3,000 for bail, he was locked up in Rikers Island awaiting trial. He remained there for three years, where he was put in solitary confinement for over a year and severely beaten by guards and inmates. After his case was finally dismissed and he was released, Browder committed suicide at the age of 22. His death made national headlines and invigorated the fight for bail reform. Compelling stories like Browder’s reveal that bail is an important part of the criminal justice discussion, Harris argues, but she’s hopeful that fines and fees will garner more attention in the future.
“For me, the fines and fees issue is just as salient as the bail issue. It’s even worse in a way. You’ve basically done your time in jail and prison, but just because of poverty…you’re going back to jail and you’re stuck in this cycle,” she said.
Harris is now in the process of researching fines and fees in eight other states, and following the money to assess how it’s actually spent. In the meantime, she wants people to understand that poor people don’t have to be trapped in this way, and that prosecutors should be held accountable.
“We often don’t focus on prosecutors enough to say ‘you could change this process,’” she said.