The Criminalizing Poverty Webpage and Blog was started by Office of the Ohio Public Defender's Racial Justice Initiative in order to raise awareness about how the court system targets low-income individuals for costs, fees, and fines that they are generally unable to pay, and to provide resources to defenders to help attack these practices.
These injustices are seen most frequently in municipal courts against low-level, non-violent offenders. While Ohio has taken positive steps—most notably in a bench card about fines and costs distributed in 2014—even if the rules are being followed, the criminalization of poverty has allowed municipal courts to devastate the lives of defendants with little evidence of crime and little process for protection.
How does this happen? From start to finish, money has an overt hand in the administration of justice.
Money Bail. In order to get out of jail before your next hearing, more often than not you need money. It doesn’t matter whether you are accused of trespass or murder, you need money to get out. And the amount of money required is not based on your income level or your ability to pay. It is often set by a bond schedule that takes into account the defendant’s crime, but ignores his or her indigence. Under this system, poor defendants are unable to pay for their release, which has the effect of compelling them to plead guilty in order to return to their homes, jobs, schools, and families.
Probation. If a defendant wants to avoid jail, probation will likely be the alternative. But, many of the costs of probation are now being passed on to probationers. Defendants on probation will often be expected to pay for their supervision, their drug tests, and their electronic monitors. Probation thus will either drain hundreds or thousands of dollars from the defendant, or it will burden him with a debt he may never be able to pay.
Pay-to-Stay. If a defendant is not lucky enough to be placed on probation—albeit probation that he has to pay for—he could be forced to pay for his incarceration instead. States and counties are increasingly requiring defendants to pay money for their time in the locale’s cages. Thus, defendants leave jail or prison with a criminal record that hinders their ability to gain employment, while simultaneously, shouldering new debt due to their incarceration.
Court Costs, Fees, and Fines. If one is able to avoid probation fees or pay-to-stay payments, defendants still typically leave court with a significant amount of debt. This is because in recent years we have seen a proliferation of new court costs, fees, and fines. Court costs are referred to as “user fees.” Defendants are, in effect, responsible for paying for their own prosecution. Beyond that, however, defendants can also be forced to pay for courthouse improvements, updated technology, highway patrols, Crimestoppers rewards, and various other tangentially related “court costs.”
Collection Agencies. Once the obvious becomes apparent —that the indigent defendant cannot pay the hundreds or thousands of dollars he now owes to the State— these debts are sometimes sold to collection agencies that engage in all sorts of practices to harass defendants
To be clear, these are not always the consequences borne by the “worst of the worst” or society’s most dangerous criminals. Indeed, these are impacts felt by the majority of municipal defendants, who are first-time offenders and/or low-level, non-violent offenders. They exacerbate the already-hindering impact of a criminal conviction. In sum, the monetary aspects of our criminal justice system needlessly punish the poorest among us, and do little to rehabilitate offenders or reduce recidivism.