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New debtors’ prisons: High court fees tough on poor

STORY BY MEG LAUGHLIN (Week of April 9, 2015)

The 50-year-old defendant sat in the front row of the courtroom last Thursday, waiting to be called to the bench to be sentenced by Judge Joe Wild after pleading “no contest” and being declared guilty as a result.

As David M. waited, his jaw clenched and his face turned bright red with anxiety. He hoped to get probation for two misdemeanors, and be diverted to Mental Health Court for a strict program of accountability and structure, instead of going to jail.  But the pressure of not knowing his fate was obviously taking its toll.

“Jail would be easier,” he had said the day before. “I’d play cards and read and not owe as much money in fees as I will on probation. But I know that being out and working toward a more honorable life is better for me and society.”

David M.’s concern about escalating fees imposed on defendants for minor offenses is the subject of a national debate, recently featured on National Public Radio, over whether poverty-stricken defendants should go to jail when they can’t pay.

In Indian River County, fees, not counting fines, include $53.50 to get a public defender, $50 for the prosecutor, $65 for miscellaneous court costs, $40 to the state for court fees, $80 up front plus $12 a day for electronic monitoring, $65 for the first month of probation plus $45 a month thereafter, as well as police and sheriff investigation fees and 40 percent collection charges tacked on when fees aren’t paid.

The debate centers on whether the practice, which often creates a prolonged cycle of poverty and incarceration, is irrational and wrong, or whether people convicted of crimes, however minor, should have to bear some of the financial responsibility and be held accountable if they can’t pay.

As David waited his turn, one defendant after another stood before the judge and heard about fines and jail: “For a first DUI, six months in jail or $1,000 fine. For reckless driving, 90 days in jail or a $500 fine. For driving with a suspended license or leaving the scene of an accident 60 days in jail or a $500 fine.”

Several months before, at the height of a manic episode, having run out of medication for his bipolar condition, David (last name omitted because of his mental health diagnosis) stopped his car and asked a young woman walking down the street if she wanted a ride.

When she mentioned money and asked about sex, he drove away. But, as an undercover cop, she and other police followed him and stopped him for pulling over and initiating the conversation.

In his car, they found a pipe and charged him with two misdemeanors: soliciting a prostitute and possessing drug paraphernalia.

As a resident at Camp Haven, a nonprofit which provides room and board for 16 homeless men with specific work skills, David, who had been clean for almost three years, was starting to get back on his feet and take part-time jobs as a graphic designer and computer specialist.

Not only was he about to pay $200 a month rent at Camp Haven, he was also hoping to accumulate money toward paying off previous court fees he owed from years before.

But his latest arrest and conviction were sure to increase dramatically what he owed.

Camp Haven director Lalita Janke said that like David, the 15 other men living at Camp Haven have debts associated with past court fees and fines. Those debts range from a mere $20 into the thousands of dollars and are often overwhelming, said Janke. 

“I’m not saying that it’s right or wrong to put them in jail for debts,” she said. “But what does it say about society when one part is trying to pull them out of a deep hole so that they are on firm ground and productive citizens, while the other part is adding on penalties? One segment is lifting them up while another segment is making things harder and pushing them down, raising the question: ‘Is there a better way?’

In an effort to find a better way, County Judge David Morgan said that for misdemeanors, he and Judge Wild “freely convert fines and fees to community service for people who can’t pay.”

Morgan’s judicial assistant, Jennifer Siegler, estimated that for every $10 owed to the system, a defendant who can’t pay does one hour of community service.

Or, said Morgan, the defendant is sent to the Clerk of Court for an extended payment plan that the person can manage. Clerk of Court Jeff Smith said the payment plans come with a flat $25 fee, rather than interest, which would make the amount much higher.

“We want to work with people who can’t pay,” said Smith. “But I do think the perpetrator needs to pay a fair share.”

A study by the National Center for State Courts showed that last year, 48 states increased court fees and added new ones in what has become a national trend.

Vero Beach police chief Dave Currey said he understands the need to do this because the courts have to keep running, but he does worry that jail is counterproductive.

“If someone is out of jail and working and getting on their feet, that person is much more likely to pay fines,” he said.

Whether David M. would stay out of jail became clear last Thursday morning, when the bailiff called him to the bench. But before his sentencing, a dozen people spoke on his behalf.

A counselor from New Horizons substance abuse program said that David was “a good candidate for Mental Health Court.” The head of his 12-step program said “we have hope for David.” Janke from Camp Haven said David had “kept all of Camp Haven’s rules” and had been “a dedicated volunteer.” 

As more and more people told of their experiences with David, his eyes filled with tears. Later, he called it “the most touching moment of my life.”

“With jail, there will be no positive outcome for David, in my opinion. David will be good as long as he is held accountable to structure in Mental Health Court,” his mental health counselor Charlotte Lajoie told the judge.

After four pastors spoke on David’s behalf, Judge Wild pronounced him guilty, gave him probation for one year and assigned him to Mental Health Court, just as David had hoped.

But the judge also told him he owed $112 for the crime investigation and a $5,000 civil fee for the solicitation conviction. David also owed more than $600 in additional fees for upcoming drug screening, probation and electronic monitoring, as well as $550 in court costs and fines.

The next day, he said he was relieved and thankful for the outcome and was “determined not to let these people down.”

“But,” he added, “the fines and fees are killing me.”