The Injustice of Court Costs on the Poor

The legal system is unfairly weighted against the poor who, unable to pay even what, for you or me, would be meager court costs for minor offenses, become enmeshed in retribution far beyond what they deserve.

The story of Dequan Jackson comes from an article by Erik Ekholm in today’s New York Times.

31juvenile-master768Dequan Jackson, 16, at his home in Jacksonville, Fla. (Charlotte Kesl for The New York Times)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — When Dequan Jackson had his only brush with the law, at 13, he tried to do everything right.

Charged with battery for banging into a teacher while horsing around in a hallway, he pleaded guilty with the promise that after one year of successful probation, the conviction would be reduced to a misdemeanor.

He worked 40 hours in a food bank. He met with an anger management counselor. He kept to an 8 p.m. curfew except when returning from football practice or church.

And he kept out of trouble.

But Dequan and his mother, who is struggling to raise two sons here on wisps of income, were unable to meet one final condition: payment of $200 in court and public defender fees. For that reason alone, his probation was extended for what turned out to be 14 more months, until they pulled together the money at a time when they had trouble finding quarters for the laundromat.

And for Dequan and his family, it got worse. Duval County, where they live, charges a dollar per day for probation supervision, so that meter kept on ticking. On a recent evening in their sparse apartment, in a rough public housing complex here, his mother, Shenna Jackson, displayed their unpaid bill from the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice’s Cost of Care Recovery Unit: $868.

“You feel like you’re drowning and you’re trying to get some air, but people are just pouring more water into the pool,” is how Dequan, now a 16-year-old honor student and star linebacker at Robert E. Lee High School, described his despair over what, for this family, is a crushing financial burden.

If they cannot pay fees, impoverished offenders may, like Dequan, spend extra months and years on probation. In some cases, they may even be incarcerated longer because they cannot pay the daily fee for a GPS ankle bracelet.

One 13-year-old in Arkansas who could not pay several hundred dollars in fines for truancy, the report found, spent three months in detention instead.

In another practice that deepens inequities, about 20 states charge fees to have juvenile records expunged or sealed; in South Carolina, for example, juvenile offenders must pay more than $300.

Back when Dequan Jackson’s mother was unable to pay his court costs, the family was scraping by on meager slices of the father’s disability checks. Six months ago, Ms. Jackson finally landed a job, as a cashier at Walmart, but the probation bill still seems beyond reach, she said, because “we are literally living from paycheck to paycheck.”

If his family had been able to hire a private lawyer, Dequan might have been diverted to a community program and never charged in the first place. Once charged, the court and probation fees might have been waived on hardship grounds, if the family had received proper advice from overburdened public defenders and probation officers. But bewildering bureaucracies, and a lack of sustained legal help, are common obstacles.

In the end, it took the volunteer help of justice officials who met Dequan through that class for him to obtain this year the promised reduction of his crime to a misdemeanor.

Dequan dreams of getting a football scholarship to college and has already received strong interest from two schools, he said.

But for college and after, it would clearly help to have his record expunged or sealed.

The family has not yet looked into the procedure. It will cost them $125.

 

 

 

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