“It’s a reimprisonment.”
That may be one of the most startling lines uttered at a special joint plenary hosted at the Annual Meeting of the National Conference of Bar Presidents and the American Bar Association. This special event took on the challenging issue of the injustice that court fines and fees can wreak on already impoverished individuals.
In the moderated discussion, speakers addressed the “pernicious effects” that judicial fines and fees can have on people’s lives—effects ranging from loss of jobs and housing all the way to imprisonment.
The topic is an even greater cause of discomfort due to its source. The court system historically has viewed itself as the location for justice and equitable outcomes. But the growing belief among some commentators that the courts are complicit in a system of inequity and poverty has caused hard introspection by chief justices and others.
As panelists noted, the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., was just one of a growing number of flashpoints that illustrate troubling truths. The first lessons to emerge from the teargas-filled streets were about policing and the relationship between police and communities.
Just below that noxious fog, though, another lesson came into view. That was the role that court fines and fees—sometimes modest, sometimes large—play in the overcriminalization of the poor. As speakers asked, if outstanding fines and fees could lead to police interaction, and those interactions are problematic, are courts partially responsible for the outcomes? Every time an individual is pulled over or detained by police, aren’t the decisions rendered in courtrooms in routine and bureaucratic ways present, too? Aren’t the courts standing behind the officers at every police stop?