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In Augusta, Ga., a judge sentenced Tom Barrett to 12 months after he stole a can of beer worth less than $2.
In Ionia, Mich., 19-year-old Kyle Dewitt caught a fish out of season; then a judge sentenced him to three days in jail.
In Grand Rapids, Mich., Stephen Papa, a homeless Iraq War veteran, spent 22 days in jail, not for what he calls his “embarrassing behavior” after he got drunk with friends and climbed into an abandoned building, but because he had only $25 the day he went to court.
The common thread in these cases, and scores more like them, is the jail time wasn’t punishment for the crime, but for the failure to pay the increasing fines and fees associated with the criminal justice system.
A yearlong NPR investigation found that the costs of the criminal justice system in the United States are paid increasingly by the defendants and offenders. It’s a practice that causes the poor to face harsher treatment than others who commit identical crimes and can afford to pay. Some judges and politicians fear the trend has gone too far.
A state-by-state survey conducted by NPR found that defendants are charged for many government services that were once free, including those that are constitutionally required. For example:
- In at least 43 states and the District of Columbia, defendants can be billed for a public defender.
- In at least 41 states, inmates can be charged room and board for jail and prison stays.
- In at least 44 states, offenders can get billed for their own probation and parole supervision.
- And in all states except Hawaii, and the District of Columbia, there’s a fee for the electronic monitoring devices defendants and offenders are ordered to wear.
These fees — which can add up to hundreds or even thousands of dollars — get charged at every step of the system, from the courtroom, to jail, to probation. Defendants and offenders pay for their own arrest warrants, their court-ordered drug and alcohol-abuse treatment and to have their DNA samples collected. They are billed when courts need to modernize their computers. In Washington state, for example, they even get charged a fee for a jury trial — with a 12-person jury costing $250, twice the fee for a six-person jury. (more…)