“Crime is costly—but so, too, is punishment, especially prison. The real costs are much higher than the $80 billion we spend each year on prisons and jails: they include a host of financial, physical, emotional, and social costs to inmates, their families, and communities.” —John F. Pfaff, Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration—and How to Achieve Real Reform. (New York: Basic Books, 2017), p. 107
America’s “get-tough-on crime” policies do not come without a price tag. The “war on drugs” that began in the1980s pulled more persons into the system. As the cost of jails, prisons, probation, and parole have skyrocketed, lawmakers came up with ways to make offenders themselves help pay for the costs through fines and fees. They promised voters they would reduce drug abuse and related crimes without making taxpayers pay for it.
So how has that worked out? For the small number of convicted offenders able to pay the fines and fees, taxpayers were relieved of some of the corrections costs. The vast majority of persons however are not able to pay the extra costs. Failure to pay fines, court costs, and probation fees is a violation of court orders and results in jail time for which taxpayers must pay. Costs to the offender mean loss of a job and society is hurt by loss of tax revenue.
An article in the Christian Century underscored for me the link between economic disparities and social injustice (“Predatory Fines: How a traffic ticket can lead to homelessness,” by Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil, Dec. 4, 2019). Consider the following:
- Fees and assessments tacked on to traffic violations of $100 now cost nearly $500, placing low-income violators in revolving debts from which they couldn’t overcome.
- Costs for collecting fees are up with Los Angeles County spending $3.9 million to bring in $3.4 million in probation fees.
- The $50 monthly probation fee in San Francisco meant individuals leaving the system were charged $57 million—way above their ability to pay.
- The average of court-related fines and fees was $13,000 per individual in Oakland, requiring most to take out high-interest loans to cover costs.
Court costs and probation fees are common throughout the U.S. They are considered among the “collateral consequences” of a criminal conviction. Americans generally support lawmakers’ demands that criminals “pay for their crime.” That used to mean with time served but now it means financial obligations beyond their ability to pay. The problem is made worse by the reluctance of employers to hire ex-offenders despite their desire to work and the skills they bring to a job. We have a revolving dilemma: inability and failure to pay is a probation violation that puts them back in jail or prison, at taxpayers’ expense!
What’s wrong? Why do laws and punishments not work? Lawmakers want to deter crime while easing financial burdens on taxpayers.
Criminologists two centuries ago (late 1700s) emphasized that punishment for crime must be proportionate to the harm done. We want to deter the behavior and not create the conditions for escalating crime. Turns out, they were right. Today, the recognition that excessive fines and fees levied against offenders unable to pay them has led counties and states to assess and reform these laws.
Crime and punishment are both costly. Perhaps it’s time to consider putting more money “up front” to prevent crime before it happens. Criminologists for decades have declared that better schools, job training and equal employment opportunities for all persons are among the best crime prevention strategies.
“…(T)he idea that lower crime is the only acceptable goal simply isn’t true. There are other, competing goals that are also desirable…. We could have less crime—but we also want more schools… and lower taxes. There’s a level of crime we’re willing to accept. No politician will say this publicly, but it’s inarguably true” – John F. Pfaff, Locked In, p. 118.