Thursday, February 23, 2006

You're Guilty and You're Poor, So Here's Your Bill

There is a scene near the end of Terry Gilliam's brilliant Brazil where our hero, having been arrested for several acts of vague criminality, meets with several helpful drones from the Ministry of Information:

Either you plead guilty to, say, seven or eight of the charges, which is going to help keep costs down within your means, or you can borrow a sum, to be negotiated, from us at very competitive rates.

We can offer you something at, say, 11.5 percent over 30 years, but you may have to buy insurance to qualify for this. If you prefer something more specific, say, against electrical charges over 70 pounds . . ..

Plead guilty, it's easier and cheaper for everyone.
Unfortunately, that's not as far from the truth as it should be. Decades after Gideon set the principle that poverty should not be a bar to legal representation in criminal cases, the indigent folks who utilize the PD system are still paying, in a multitude of ways. Today's New York Times has a great article about the various court costs, probation fees, and other ways of making poor people pay for their interaction with the criminal justice system.

I see it in the Federal system, where defendants are charged $100 per charge as a "special assessment." Unlike a fine, which can be waived if the person is too poor to pay, the special assessments are mandatory. They sometimes get paid off over years from the near-slave wages made while in prison.

Failure to pay these charges can lead to further time in prison. It's a vicious cycle that makes absolutely no sense. As Dan Filler points out over at Concurring Opinions:
This is not a bleeding heart versus tough love issue. It is a matter of pragmatism. Bernie Ebbers should share the costs of his trial and punishment if he has some cash lying about. But while there may be moral arguments for dunning the average John Doe, practical considerations suggest we shouldn't.

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