Policy: Law

Poor go to jail for inability to pay court fines, despite Supreme Court ruling barring the practice

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Watchdog,Kelly Cohen,Accountability,Law,Poverty

The U.S. Supreme Court made it clear in 1983 that judges cannot send people to jail because they are too poor to pay their court fines -- but an NPR investigation has found this ruling may not always be followed.

The high court's ruling, Bearden v. Georgia, held that a judge must first consider whether the defendant has the ability to pay but "willfully" refuses.

The definition of "willfully" not pay was not made clear enough, however.

NPR sampled jail records in Benton County, Wash., over a four-month period last year and found that on a typical day, a quarter of the people who were in jail for misdemeanor offenses were there because they had failed to pay their court fines and fees.

This isn't the only case — NPR found there are "wide discrepancies" in how judges make the decisions on defendants and their offender fees across the country.

The defendants are often charged for government services that were once free, including ones constitutionally required, NPR found.

Since 2010, 48 states have increased criminal and civil court fees.

Miriam Aukerman, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, told NPR she doesn't believe it's wrong to charge people money as a form of punishment, but an alternative needs to exist.

"And that alternative cannot be: incarceration if you're poor, payment if you're rich."

Read the story and hear audio of it at this link. You can also hear the audio from NPR in the embedded player below this story.

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