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Planet Money: Fine And Punishment


Paying your debt to society has become another way of saying serving time in prison. But as Sarah Gonzalez from our Planet Money podcast reports, there is often another very literal debt for prisoners to pay.

SARAH GONZALEZ, BYLINE: Michael Taylor walked out of prison with a bus ticket, enough money to buy some barbecue chips and lotto tickets, and court debt.


GONZALEZ: How much did you owe?

MICHAEL TAYLOR: Like 13, 14 - I probably owed $20,000 in court costs and fines throughout my incarceration history.

GONZALEZ: He's been in and out his whole life.

TAYLOR: I'm not proud of this, and I really don't want to say it, but I've sold drugs. When I was a kid, I stole cars and burglarized stores - not houses, stores.

GONZALEZ: We were able to confirm that Taylor does have at least $13,508.55 in court fees. And some of these fees are related to using the resources of the justice system. Court fees go to pay for the stenographer to type up court minutes. You pay for a warrant that was issued. You pay for the judge's salary for their retirement. But some of the fees really have nothing at all to do with committing a crime.

TERIANN VAN WINKLE: I owe $2,555.25

GONZALEZ: This is Teriann Van Winkle. She did two years for forging a check, and she's scrolling through her fees. There's one for some forensic work - $5.

VAN WINKLE: Which I don't know why there's a forensic fee because I'm - it's not even a drug charge.

GONZALEZ: There's a $100 trauma care fee that goes to a hospital fund in the state. It's for patients with severe trauma cases. There's a $3 fee for a child abuse fund.

VAN WINKLE: And it goes to, like, children that are being abused.

GONZALEZ: Even though you did not have a child abuse-related case?

VAN WINKLE: Right. Correct.

GONZALEZ: These types of programs are often paid for with taxes, and Van Winkle has a job at Subway. Taxes come out of her paycheck, so she says she's paying for public services twice. And every state has fees and fines like this. Court fees started piling up when Americans started to revolt against tax increases in the 1970s and '80s. States still had to generate revenue, so states started thinking maybe crime could pay. They added new fees to misdemeanors, to felonies and even to traffic tickets. And they started locking people up who didn't pay, like Michael Taylor.

TAYLOR: I've been locked up twice for failure to pay.

GONZALEZ: He hasn't always paid his fees.

TAYLOR: I've given him a dollar before and gotten a receipt for it. But now - but now it's like, every nickel I get, I need - every nickel I get.

GONZALEZ: Now, the U.S. has ruled pretty clearly that we cannot have debtors prisons in the U.S. The U.S. banned them in 1833. Before that, there were actual brick dungeons in Manhattan and Philadelphia just for people who couldn't pay their debts. But the Supreme Court has said that you can go to jail if you have the money and choose not to pay. And today, when you get rearrested for failing to pay your fees, you're technically arrested for violating your parole, not for being too poor to pay. It's a tricky little workaround that some people think is actually a violation of the law. When Michael Taylor got out this last time, he went to a homeless shelter and now has a part-time job.

TAYLOR: What I have is all the money I get by working. I'm not going to allow you to fine me into poverty. I'm not going to allow you to take any more food out of my mouth to pay you for something I served. I'm not paying you for that anymore. I'm not going to pay you anymore. I don't have any money to pay you.

GONZALEZ: And there is a way to work down your debt without actually making payments. You can sit in jail.

RYAN GENTZLER: Oh, yeah. It happens a lot.

GONZALEZ: Ryan Gentzler with the Oklahoma Policy Institute has researched these fees for years.

GENTZLER: So if you have, say, $1,500 in fines and fees, some judges will allow you to stay in their jail and for every night that you spend there, you know, take $50 off of your fines and fees.

GONZALEZ: When counties are allowed to keep all the revenue they generate from these fees, that can create some perverse incentives, says economist Michael Makowsky at Clemson University. One solution, he says, don't let counties keep all the money for themselves. Have it go to a big state pot.

MICHAEL MAKOWSKY: So if I'm a single municipality who wants to introduce a new ride-along fee that says any person who's arrested and then driven to the police department or the jail, they have to pay a $50 fee - well, you don't actually keep $50 anymore, right? Your new fee you just invented, that's spread across everyone else in the state before it's redistributed back.

GONZALEZ: If you only get to keep a fraction of the money from your fees, maybe there will be fewer fees.

Sarah Gonzalez, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMON TOBIN'S "EASY MUFFIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah Gonzalez
Sarah Gonzalez is a host and reporter with Planet Money, NPR's award-winning podcast that finds creative, entertaining ways to make sense of the big, complicated forces that move our economy. She joined the team in April 2018.
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