When people think about the cost of jail, they often think in terms of loss of freedom and loss of wages. However, many people fail to realize there is an actual cost to being incarcerated.
Later this month, the United States Supreme Court will decide whether to hear a case about the fines charged to individuals arrested. The case originated in Ramsey County Minnesota where Corey Statham was arrested with $46 in his pocket on a charge of disorderly conduct. He was released two days later and the charges were dismissed. Upon release, the County informed Statham that he owed them $25 for a booking fee. The jail informed him they had placed his money on a debit card and he could use it to withdraw the rest of his money. The debit card was not affiliated with any bank, so he was charged additional fees to withdraw the money.
Costs of Incarceration to Raise Money
Ramsey County is not alone in using costs of incarceration in raising to bolster its coiffeurs. Nationally there is a trend to use incarceration for any length of time and regardless of guilt to raise money by charging those who find themselves interacting with the criminal justice system a wide range of fines. Kentucky charges individuals the cost of incarcerating them, even if charges are later dismissed. In Colorado, multiple towns made over 30% of their annual revenue from traffic tickets and fines. A report by the Justice Department found that in Ferguson, Missouri city officials repeatedly emphasized that maximizing revenue should be a top priority for law enforcement officials.
A coalition of civil rights groups, criminal defense attorneys, libertarian groups and conservatives are challenging thee fund raising efforts in the court system. These groups are challenging the ability to take private property of citizens without any constitutional protections. They also suggest that these fines can often result in poor people being trapped in a cycle of debt and jail.
Convictions Overturned and Refunds of Fines and Costs
The Supreme Court will hear a case this month about a Colorado law that makes it extremely difficult for individuals who later have their convictions overturned to obtain refunds of fines and costs often amounting to thousands of dollars. Colorado requires those seeking a refund of costs of incarceration to file a separate lawsuit and prove their innocence by clear and convincing evidence. It is difficult if not impossible for most individuals to afford the cost of such lawsuits.
Ramsey County makes individuals submit evidence to have their booking fees returned. When Mr. Statham’s case was argued before the United States Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit last year, a lawyer for the county acknowledged that the fine scheme in place was in conflict with the presumption of innocence required by the Constitution.
The Supreme Court will likely grapple with the same issue that plagued both the 7th Circuit and 8th Circuit courts. Are the protections guaranteed by the Due Process Clause triggered when such small amounts of money are involved? The 8th Circuit cited precedent from other circuit courts as well as the US Supreme Court stating that the Due Process Clause “sets no minimum threshold value for which protection begins.” However, the amount in question can be pertinent when determining whether interest to the state in collecting the fee outweighs the burden placed on the individual.
Perhaps $25 seems like a tiny sum to go through so much effort. But it can be an extraordinary expense to the working poor. It represents almost half a day’s work at the Federal minimum wage and it is about the weekly amount the federal food stamp program allots to feed an adult.