Local jail fees face legal challenges in court

A county in Minnesota has come under fire for its practice of making all arrestees pay a booking fee at the time of their arrest, regardless of whether they are charged or convicted of a crime. 

Sue Ogrocki/AP/File
Delaware County Jail in Jay, Oklahoma, on Oct. 5, 2016. In Oklahoma, jail inmates are charged for the full cost of care, including booking, receiving and processing out, housing, food, clothing, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Court can determine that the costs be reduced but may not waive the fees entirely.

A Minnesota county has come under fire for its practice of making every arrestee pay a $25 fee regardless of whether he or she is ultimately charged with, or convicted of, a crime. 

The Supreme Court will soon decide whether to hear a challenge to the "booking fees" in Ramsey County, Minn., from two men who were made to pay $25 at the time of their arrest. Corey Statham and Erik Mickelson each had their respective charges of disorderly conduct and noise ordinance violation dismissed shortly after they were jailed – but, like all arrestees in Ramsey County, their $25 was not automatically returned to them upon their release. 

The booking charge in Ramsey County is one of many similar fees and fines that have come under fire in recent years as underfunded state and local judicial systems look for new ways to bring in much-needed revenue. Under some systems, there is no way to reclaim the money lost, even when an arrestee has his charges dismissed, or is never charged at all. In other places, such as Ramsey County, it is possible to get back one's money – but, opponents of these fees argue, many innocent arrestees don't have the time, know-how, or courage to do so, creating a system that critics say disproportionately punishes the poor.

The good news, says Lauren-Brooke Eisen, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, is that "as more and more of these fees and fines are charged, it's becoming hard to ignore them." Activists, civil rights attorneys, criminal defense lawyers, and some public defenders have begun to challenge such practices. There's been some increase in litigation in recent years, Ms. Eisen says, met with varying degrees of success. 

While the legal challenges question the constitutionality of such charges and whether they violate an arrestee's right to due process, at the heart of the pushback is the notion that these fees and fines are "charging the poorest members of our society for using the court system," Ms. Eisen tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. "At the end of the day, we are criminalizing poverty." 

In Ramsey County, it is possible for innocent people to get their money back, though there is "some legwork involved," as Jason Hiveley, a lawyer for the county, noted when the case was argued last year before the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in St. Paul. If the arrest does not result in a conviction, arrestees are required to submit evidence to prove they are entitled to a refund. 

"The reality is that few people will take the time, undergo the hassle, or brave the interactions with law enforcement required to recover their $25, such that the County will keep most of the fees it collects, even from the concededly innocent," wrote Michael Carvin, the attorney representing Mr. Statham, in a Supreme Court brief. "The County undoubtedly knows this, which gives it an incentive to arrest more people, collect more fees, and obtain additional revenue." 

"Providing a profit motive to make arrests gives officers an incentive to make improper arrests," he added. 

The county has not yet submitted a response to the Supreme Court challenge, and initially said it did not plan to do so, prior to being ordered by the Supreme Court to submit a brief by Jan. 13. In its appeals court brief, it emphasized the role of such fees in creating revenue, writing: "Municipal services come at a cost." 

That cost, critics argue, can have a much greater impact on poor arrestees. 

"While thirty dollars may not seem like much to the governing class in our society, including lawyers and judges, it is for too many people a vital amount of cash," wrote one federal judge in a dissent in an Illinois-based case involving booking fees, noting that thirty dollars is "roughly the average allotment under the federal Food Stamp program...to help feed an adult for a week," as well as the federal minimum wage for more than half a day of work. 

Elsewhere, such as in Kentucky, state and local governments have similarly come under fire for charging arrestees who have been jailed – even those whose charges were dropped – with the costs of their incarceration. Today, the number of Americans in jail, and the average length of their stay, is much higher than in decades past, as Henry Gass reported for the Monitor last year: 

America’s national conversation on race and inequality has reached a crescendo over the past year, and the country’s criminal justice system is at the center of it. Few institutions embody the country’s issues of racial and economic inequality more starkly, and recent tragedies have amplified calls for reform on both sides of the political aisle...

There are almost 12 million local jail admissions every year – 20 times the number of prison admissions – according to a report from the Vera Institute for Justice. Jail populations have tripled since the 1980s, with nearly 75 percent of sentenced offenders and pretrial detainees in jail for nonviolent offenses.

The average length of stay in jail has also increased from 14 days to 23 days between 1983 and 2013.

"Jails are where the problems of mass incarceration begin," Julian Adler, director of research-practice strategies at the Center for Court Innovation, told the Monitor. "Prison reform is very important, but if you don’t focus on how America uses and overuses jail you’re really missing that threshold moment where mass incarceration begins." 

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