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New ABA study captures impact of fines, fees on the poor

June 29, 2020

The American Bar Association Working Group on Building Public Trust in the American Justice System released June 24 a comprehensive report showing that about 10 million low-income residents owe more than $50 billion in often unaffordable additional costs.

“Privatization of Services in the Criminal Justice System,” cites numerous examples of burdensome costs added by for-profit companies.

“Privatization of Services in the Criminal Justice System,” cites numerous examples of burdensome costs added by for-profit companies.

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The figures reflect the increased prevalence of fees throughout the criminal justice system, and the extent  to which those fees are charged by private companies, often for profit. Fees for both pretrial and post-sentence supervision balloon as private companies add revenue-enhancing requirements such as courses, regular drug and alcohol testing, counseling, periodic background checks and electronic monitoring.

“No one should face harsher punishment in the U.S. criminal justice system merely because they are poor,” ABA President Judy Perry Martinez said. “Yet individuals are routinely charged numerous fees by private companies while working to resolve even minor criminal cases. These fees often further entrench poor individuals in poverty and foster distrust in the criminal justice system while unfairly prolonging involvement in it.”

The report, “Privatization of Services in the Criminal Justice System,” cites numerous examples of burdensome costs added by for-profit companies. In about 40 Illinois counties, for example, bad-check writers, in addition to restitution, must pay an administrative fee of $25 to $35 and a fee of $125 to $175 for a “financial accountability” class, with additional fees for enrolling in a payment plan or rescheduling a missed class. As a result, someone who bounces a check for as little as $5 can end up paying as much as $300.

“Our criminal justice system should prioritize public safety,” Rob Weiner, chair of the working group, said. “The fees in the criminal justice system disproportionately harm minority communities and, particularly when driven by profit, fuel the distrust these communities feel toward that system. We must take steps to eliminate these fees, ensure that all programs are equally accessible to those who need them and guarantee that nobody is trapped in the criminal justice system by virtue of inability to pay.”

The report represents the views of the working group and has not been approved by the ABA House of Delegates or the Board of Governors.

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