[Ppnews] Staggering cost of getting out of prison

Political Prisoner News PPnews at freedomarchives.org
Thu Feb 23 14:07:58 EST 2006


February 23, 2006

Debt to Society Is Least of Costs for Ex-Convicts


It is increasingly expensive to be a criminal.

Beverly Dubois, a 49-year-old former park ranger 
in Washington State, spent nine months in jail 
for growing and selling marijuana. She still owes 
the state almost $1,900 for court costs and 
various fees. Until she pays up, the state has taken away her right to vote.

Wilbert Rideau, 64, a convicted killer, spent 44 
years in Louisiana prisons. Not long after he was 
released last year, he filed for bankruptcy in an 
effort to avoid the state's attempts to collect $127,000 in court costs.

Almost every encounter with the criminal justice 
system these days can give rise to a fee. There 
are application fees and co-payments for public 
defenders. Sentences include court costs, 
restitution and contributions to various funds. 
In Washington State, people convicted of certain 
crimes are also charged $100 so their DNA can be put in a database.

Private probation companies charge $30 to $40 a 
month for supervision. Halfway houses charge for 
staying in them. People sentenced to community 
service are required to buy $15 insurance 
policies for every week they work. Criminals on 
probation and parole wear global positioning 
devices that monitor their whereabouts — for a charge of as much as $16 a day.

The sums raised by these ever-mounting fees are 
intended to help offset some of the enormous 
costs of operating the criminal justice system. 
But even relatively small fees — $40 per session, 
say, for a court-ordered anger management class 
or $15 for a drug test — can have devastating 
consequences for people who emerge from prison 
with no money, credit or prospects, and who live 
in fear of being sent back for failing to pay.

"The difference between 30 years ago and today," 
said George H. Kendall, a lawyer with Holland & 
Knight in New York who represents Mr. Rideau, "is 
that people who everyone agrees are poor are 
leaving the courthouse significantly poorer."

Prosecutors and political leaders often say it is 
only fair that criminals rather than taxpayers 
pay for what it costs to protect the public.

But Judge James R. Thurman of the Magistrate 
Court in Lee County, Ga., said his state's many 
fees, known there as add-ons, were a backdoor way 
to make poor people pay for the free lawyers 
guaranteed to them by the United States Supreme 
Court's decision in Gideon v. Wainwright in 1963.

"You're asking the people who can't afford to 
hire an attorney to pay anyway by making them pay 
through add-on fees," Judge Thurman said.

Indeed, according to the American Bar 
Association, at least 15 states, including New 
Jersey and Connecticut, charge application fees 
to people seeking court-appointed lawyers. 
Washington has one of the longest lists of fees 
assessed to criminals, and it is diligent in 
trying to collect them. Ms. Dubois, disabled 
after a car accident, makes payments of $10 a 
month toward what was once a $1,610 debt — $1,000 
for a county "drug enforcement fund," a $500 
"victim assessment fee" and $110 in court costs.

"I still don't know who the victim was," she said.

Her efforts notwithstanding, her debt is growing 
because of the 12 percent interest assessed 
annually by the State of Washington. As of September, it stood at $1,895.69.

"I will never have it paid off in my lifetime," Ms. Dubois said.

Washington also uses an unusual tool: it denies 
people who have not paid such debts the right to vote.

"You have to complete all the terms of your 
sentence" to regain the right to vote, explained 
Jeffrey T. Even, a lawyer for the state. "If the 
monthly payment is low enough and if the debt is 
high enough, you can actually be going backwards."

Aaron H. Caplan, a lawyer with the American Civil 
Liberties Union in Washington State, which has 
filed a lawsuit on behalf of Ms. Dubois 
challenging her disenfranchisement, said that 
tens of thousands of people were affected and 
that their number would grow. "Over the last 20 
to 25 years, the Legislature has been making it 
more and more expensive to purchase back the right to vote," Mr. Caplan said.

National figures concerning fees assessed to 
criminals are not available, but Washington is 
something of a case study. The state sends out 
some 79,000 bills every month, and it collected 
about $25 million last year. But these collection 
efforts are barely making a dent in the $1.2 
billion owed by former offenders, much of it for 
the cost of prison room and board, which can 
reach $50 a day. The budget of the State 
Department of Corrections for the two-year period 
ending in 2007 is more than $1.4 billion.

Fees for room and board are levied in many 
states, and they can quickly mount to levels that 
are essentially uncollectible, with states not 
bothering, except in special cases. Even other types of fees can be unwieldy.

Mr. Rideau, for instance, has been billed 
$127,000 for the cost of his fourth and final trial last year.

Louisiana wants him to pay for the costs of 
housing, feeding and transporting his jury from 
across the state. The prosecution has submitted 
bills from more than two dozen establishments, 
including the Seafood Palace ($435.68), Ruby 
Tuesday ($312.66) and Best Suites ($16,874.33).

His trial was expensive partly because Mr. Rideau 
was so famous in Lake Charles, La., where he 
killed a bank teller in 1961. He was convicted of 
murder three times, in 1961, 1964 and 1970, but 
appeals courts threw out the verdicts, citing misconduct by the government.

A fourth jury last year rejected the murder 
charge and found Mr. Rideau guilty of 
manslaughter, which had a maximum sentence of 21 
years, meaning his sentence was complete. Mr. 
Rideau, who was also a prison journalist during 
his four decades behind bars, was freed that same day.

But Louisiana was not done with Mr. Rideau. David 
A. Ritchie, the judge in the case, ruled that Mr. 
Rideau was responsible for all of the charges billed by the prosecution.

"Mr. Rideau is the one that committed this crime 
that led to this trial, then led to all these 
costs," Judge Ritchie said at a hearing in 
August. "That's why people are charged court 
costs, because it's their actions."

Mr. Rideau has filed for bankruptcy, even though 
it is not clear that bankruptcy can erase debts 
of this kind. He has also appealed the decision, 
saying he is puzzled by the state's efforts.

"Society's interest is in an ex-con becoming 
solvent and in becoming a contributing member of 
society," Mr. Rideau said. "They created this 
court-costs sham to sabotage my efforts to create a life."

John F. Derosier, the district attorney in the 
case, defended the charges in court papers 
opposing Mr. Rideau's appeal last month. "He owes 
a debt to society which must be paid," Mr. Derosier wrote.

The assessment of court costs is common in civil 
cases. Many state laws allow or require the costs 
to be imposed in criminal cases, too, though 
rarely for an amount even approaching that sought 
from Mr. Rideau. Vanita Gupta, a lawyer with the 
NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which 
also represents Mr. Rideau, said his case might have unintended consequences.

"The prospect of having to pay for court costs is 
going to dissuade some defendants from going to 
trial," Ms. Gupta said. Even an innocent 
defendant, she said, may prefer a guilty plea to 
a trial if the downside includes not only a 
longer sentence but also a crushing debt.

Georgia is also aggressive in collecting fees, 
and it has enlisted private probation companies 
to help. The companies charge a monthly fee of 
$30 or $40 for their services. That fee can rival the fine.

"You're basically charging an interest fee that 
would make a finance company blush," said Stephen 
B. Bright, the director of the Southern Center for Human Rights.

In 2003, for instance, Sabrina Byrd, a 
27-year-old single mother, was ordered to pay 
$852 for failing to leash and vaccinate her dog 
in College Park, Ga. Too poor to pay, she was 
placed on probation while she made 10 monthly 
installments, along with a monthly fee to a 
probation company of $39 — about half of the 
fine. When she fell behind and failed to contact 
the company, a judge revoked her probation and 
sentenced her to 25 days in jail.

Though the Supreme Court has said that defendants 
may not be jailed for failing to pay a fine when 
they have no money, they can be jailed for 
failing to report to their probation officer. 
Many poor people do not appreciate that 
distinction and fail to report when they have no money.

Judge Thurman, who was not involved in Ms. Byrd's 
case, said he took pains to tell people to report 
no matter what. Otherwise, "I have no alternative 
but to issue a warrant for your arrest," he tells defendants.

But some probation companies, according to court 
records, effectively use the threat of arrest as a collection tool.

John Cole Vodicka, the director of Georgia's 
Prison and Jail Project, questioned the current system.

"A $500 fine going into probation translates into 
$1,500 coming out of probation," he said. "No 
one's really benefiting, except maybe private companies."

New technologies can also add fees. Isecuretrac, 
an Omaha company that sells global positioning 
monitors to local governments to track sex 
offenders and others, promotes a system that 
encourages offenders to pay, often on a sliding 
scale based on financial resources. Thomas E. 
Wharton Jr., the company's chief executive, said 
about 70 percent of county agencies that use 
electronic monitoring charge the offenders for them.

"I don't think the intent really is to gouge 
offenders," Mr. Wharton said, "because they have 
a difficult enough time to get back into their 
communities and to support themselves."

Copyright 2006The New York Times Company
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