Paying for It: The Making of Guilty and Charged

Paying for It: The Making of Guilty and Charged

November 2, 2015 | Joseph Shapiro

2-joe_shapiro_npr_vert-530bc978ebc76ea03934db381ee9d8059bc0ef67-s200-c85

Our series started—like many interesting narratives—with a simple question. I wondered how a Texas man I’d written about was expected to pay the daily fee for the electronic monitoring bracelet around his ankle. He hadn’t earned an income in nine years—because he’d been in prison. He was released after his conviction was thrown out. But he walked out of prison broke, owing court-imposed debt. At the same time, he needed to find money to possibly go back to trial. 

Our series started—like many interesting narratives—with a simple question. I wondered how a Texas man I’d written about was expected to pay the daily fee for the electronic monitoring bracelet around his ankle. He hadn’t earned an income in nine years—because he’d been in prison. He was released after his conviction was thrown out. But he walked out of prison broke, owing court-imposed debt. At the same time, he needed to find money to possibly go back to trial. 

I looked around the country and found similar cases of people selling their plasma, using disability checks, or borrowing from family to pay court debt that typically ran hundreds or even thousands of dollars. And when they missed a payment, sometimes they went to jail (even though debtors’ prisons were outlawed nearly 200 years ago). 

A key moment came on my first reporting trip, in June 2013, to Augusta, Georgia, where I met Tom Barrett. He was caught shoplifting a can of beer worth less than two dollars. The judge said he could be released if he agreed to wear an electronic monitoring bracelet around his ankle. But it cost $12 a day, plus other fees that totaled more than $400 a month. Barrett, until shortly before I met him, had been homeless. He had no income, other than food stamps. He tried to come up with the money. He would sell his plasma for $30. But soon, he fell behind. So he ended up in jail, not for his original act of shoplifting, but because he didn’t have the money to pay for the bracelet. His sentence: 12 months. 

Over the course of a year, I sat in on courtrooms across the country and interviewed over 150 lawyers, judges, defendants, offenders in jail and just out of jail, government officials, advocates, academics and other experts. And when I couldn’t be in a court, I obtained tape recordings of courtroom sessions where judges imposed fines and fees, including one where a Michigan judge told Stephen Papa, a homeless Iraq veteran, that he should have picked up cans for recycling to make the $50 he owed the court.  

One barrier to our reporting was simply finding people. I would hear about a case, but the person struggling with the fines was in jail or was homeless, had changed his/her phone number, or didn’t have a phone. We asked lawyers to help find defendants, made calls to jails, and simply kept digging for more cases. 

Another big challenge was the lack of national data. We wanted to prove that this was a national problem, not something isolated in a few pockets around the country. So National Public Radio (NPR) conducted its own nationwide survey of criminal codes and legislative histories. We made a never-done-before tally to show how common these user fees have become in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.  

Part of what’s stunning is how much gets passed along to the defendants and offenders who go through the system.  

You often get charged for your own arrest warrant, and for your DNA to be collected and put in a state data bank. When you go to jail, you get charged for medical care. We found that people get charged room and board when they’re in jail. They get billed for their own probation and parole supervision. 

In Michigan, Frederick Cunningham was charged $1,000 for what was called court costs. He challenged it. He wanted to know: What was he paying for? And the court officials in Allegan County broke it down for him: $500 for the program that paid for his public defender. And $500 to underwrite the daily costs of running the courthouse—the security, the heat, the lights, the phones. He was even assessed a fee to underwrite the cost of running the employees’ fitness gym. 

Our survey of state laws found that defendants get charged for things that are constitutionally required—such as some of the cost of that public defender. A total of 43 states, plus the District of Columbia, allow that. Sometimes it’s hundreds or thousands of dollars. Often, there is an up-front administrative fee just to get a public defender. And that ranges from $10 in New Mexico to up to $400 in Arkansas.  

Courts justify this as a small fee people can afford. But I found people who said they couldn’t, like Tom Barrett. He didn’t have the $50 administrative fee for the public defender he was offered, so he didn’t get one. But that, he told me, was a mistake. 

Our series ran on NPR about three months before the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Protests there showed a deep distrust of police, which was fueled by the way people were arrested for minor offenses, charged high fines and fees, and then jailed when they didn’t pay. In 2013, the municipal court of Ferguson—a city of 21,135 people—issued nearly 33,000 arrest warrants for non-violent offenses, mostly driving violations. There has been reform since then to erase outstanding warrants in St. Louis County and to cap how much of a municipality’s budget can be funded by these court fines.  

Ferguson—and, I think, our series—helped Americans understand the issue of criminal justice debt. Media coverage is frequent now. And, in recent months, there have been multiple lawsuits to challenge such practices. 

 

As an NPR News Investigations correspondent, Joseph Shapiro takes on long-term reporting projects and covers breaking news stories for NPR. His reporting has generated widespread attention to serious issues in the United States and abroad. He is the winner of a Media for a Just Society Award for his series Guilty and Charged in the radio category. The series looks at the epidemic of poor people, mostly of color, incarcerated at incredibly high rates for failing to pay the fees charged at every step of the way through the criminal justice system, from the courtroom, to jail, to probation.