Paying for the Privilege of Punishment, Part II

EKU Online > Paying for the Privilege of Punishment, Part II

By: Betsy Matthews

In this two-part series, EKU Online coordinator and associate professor Dr. Betsy Matthews explored the affect that fees have on those on parole. Read Part I: Parole Involves Re-Adjusting to Society  . . . and Worrying about Fees.

Part II: A High Price to Pay

A recent story aired on NPR reported on the findings of a year- long investigation into the number and size of “court-related user fees.”  Through a state-by-state survey, NPR found that:

  • “In 43 states and the District of Columbia, defendants can be billed for a public defender;
  • In 41 states, inmates can be charged for room and board for jail and prison stays;
  • In 44 states, offenders can get billed for their own probation and parole supervision; and
  • In all states except Hawaii, and the District of Columbia, there’s a fee for the electronic monitoring devices defendants and offenders are ordered to wear.”

NPR’s investigators talked to people who had racked up thousands of dollars in court-user fees with no ability to pay; their solution was, in many cases, to “go underground” to avoid arrest.  NPR also uncovered hundreds of Americans being jailed for their inability to pay these court-user fees.

Hundreds of Americans are being jailed for their inability to pay court-user fees.

What purpose do these court-user fees serve?  Do they have any therapeutic or deterrent value?  Not likely.  In fact, they seem to have the opposite effect by pushing people to violate their conditions of supervision.  

I suppose you could use the retributive argument to support the imposition of these fees— people who violate our laws should have to “pay back” for the harm they caused to victims and communities.  It costs money to process cases through the court system and punish people convicted of crimes, and thus, the perpetrator should be made to pay.  But even the purist retributivist would have to recognize these fees as excessive and unjust. 

Remember, that these fees are applied to persons who have already been punished for their criminal behavior.  And although these fees are not explicitly intended as punishment, that is what they end up being.  My guess is that paying these fees doesn’t feel like much of a privilege for people who struggle to get food on the table.

Dr. Betsy Matthews’ work focuses on community corrections and correctional rehabilitation. She began her career as a child care worker in a residential treatment facility for behaviorally disordered adolescents before moving into an adult probation officer position in Greene County, Ohio. After earning her master’s degree, Dr. Matthews accepted a position with the American Probation and Parole Association, serving as a research associate on federally funded grant projects.

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