Convicted of a Crime? Pony Up a 'User Fee.'

Guilty defendants charged hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars in court fees

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Gavel (Flickr: walknboston)

In a recession economy, all of us – including government agencies – are doing what we can to make ends meet, and that includes states' legal systems. A new report released by NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice reveals that states are imposing new court fees for individuals with criminal convictions. The fees are described as “user fees,” as they are not the traditional obligations levied for punishment, deterrence, or rehabilitation. Instead, these fees serve only to pay back the court system as it attempts to recoup operational costs.

If this study is correct, there are few winners in this scenario. These fees disproportionally affect the poor and indigent who, unable to pay, can wind up with additional financial penalties or, in some cases, even sent back to prison. Furthermore, states' commitments to getting these fees paid may be costing taxpayers far more than the original fees themselves. 

We speak with Rebekah Diller, Deputy Director of the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, who is one of the principal researchers in the Center’s report. We also speak to Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association. Burns argues that this study misses the fact that justice is not dealt with with a cookie cutter model. As such, even if the study's findings are proven correct, they may not indicate a systemic failure.


Scott Burns and Rebekah Diller

Produced by:

Hsi-Chang Lin

Comments [1]

Astrid afKlinteberg from Massachusetts

I am a Bar Advocate (court appointed lawyer) in Massachusetts. The Commonwealth charges ALL indigent defendants a $150 counsel fee. This fee is can be waived by the judge but it is rarely done.

I For the past 3 years I have had a standing objection to the imposition of the counsel fee and have tried to get the matter before the appeals court. I had one case where I represented a homeless mother who was spuriously accused to assault and battery by her estranged sister. We took the case to trial and the sister did not show up. I moved to have the fee waived, but the judge denied my motion. When I pointed out that this woman was homeless, had several small children (one under the age of 1 year) and her husband was only working at McDonald's, the judge stated that she could do court work service. I further pointed out that my client would not have child care for the hours work service was available as her husband was at work. The judge was unmoved by these facts. This judge is now Regional Administrative Judge. It was only when my client and I were preparing to take the case up on appeal that another judge waived the fee (and finally dismissed the case against my client).

Oct. 05 2010 09:31 AM

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