Fines, Fees and Mass Incarceration
By Tom Trucksess
After conducting interviews with three experts, new ideas were gained for the direction our country needs to take, in enacting real and meaningful criminal justice reform. There were underlining and common issues raised among each of the three experts interviewed. Each expert had different solutions they proposed.
After interviewing Larry M. Gant, a community and neighborhood solutions expert, we uncovered a key takeaway. These were the issues minorities who live in rural areas face. This topic is usually not discussed. It was eye-opening to hear about this.
These issues are similar to those in which minorities who live in urban areas face. The first issue discussed was poor schooling. In rural areas, public school districts are often neglected. This is due to a lack of funding. Many small towns do not have the means to properly fund their school districts.
Combine this with mainly conservative populations in rural areas; they will resist increases in taxes. This creates an issue. Schools cannot raise proper funds. This leaves students with a poor quality education.
The second major issue minorities in rural areas face is the lack of meaningful employment opportunities. Already finding themselves isolated both socially and in location, many who live in rural areas also struggle financially.
The third major issue minorities in rural areas face, are police issues. Poor education and continual financial stress, contribute to this. As a result, minorities who live in rural areas may have early contact with the criminal justice system.
This contact leaves them with another burden they cannot handle. Already in dire financial straits and now having to pay off criminal fees and fines, this pushes many families to the edge of financial ruin.
Catresa Meyers began her work overseeing and clerking large cases in the Philadelphia court system in the early 2000s. During this time, the War on Drugs was still in full effect. As a result of the War on Drugs, people were receiving lengthy jail sentences for small drug possessions. It was this time in our interview, Catresa admits the War on Drugs did not work.
Catresa Meyers reiterates how fines and fees handed out to defendants keep people trapped in our justice system. Low-income convicts, may not have the means for paying off the costs that come with navigating the justice system. These costs include attorney fees and court fines. Failure to pay off these expenses will lead to their incarceration.
What was discussed next in our interview was eye-opening. This is the existence of different specialized courts in our justice system. Listed out by Catresa, were domestic abuse, drug, human trafficking, and military courts. These courts provide several benefits. These courts all specialize in their own areas. This allows them to be knowledgeable in the cases they rule on. These courts are better able to hand out reasonable punishments. Catresa reiterated in our interview how these courts are a step in the right direction.
Because these courts are focused only on their specific areas, they are better able to provide help for defendants. Many of these defendants who require help, may suffer from mental illness and drug addiction. These courts can defer defendants away from incarceration. Instead they may be required to complete rehabilitative programs or community service.
The last solution Catresa made in our interview was the theme of real and meaningful community service. If defendants are given the opportunity to complete community service programs, they are less likely to destroy their own neighborhoods. This also delivers to them a sense of belonging. People who have completed community service programs, can look to a clean park and know they made it that way.
As a result of his position, Jacobson had an inside look at the inner workings of how corrections operate. His unique perspectives allowed him to see the consequences which came from the War on Drugs. Jacobson went on to state, how simply locking people away and throwing away the key, does not work.
Currently, Michael Jacobson works for the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance of New York. This organization works with non-profit organizations, public charities, and local governments. Their work is to build trust between these organizations and the general public.
Jacobson went on to describe in our interview, solutions to several problems our justice system faces. The first solution proposed, was how to better use incarceration. Jacobson proposed that courts should only use incarceration as a last resort. Incarceration should not be the default response. Jacobson points out how this practice is already in use overseas.
The second solution proposed by Jacobson was doing what works in practice. We need to look to the criminal justice systems of other western countries. We can examine the reforms they have made.
Jacobson elaborated specifically on this, by discussing the practices of Scandinavian countries. Their criminal justice systems have much lower rates of incarceration than the United States. Jacobson goes on to state, how this is a result of them using incarceration as a last resort.
Instead, defendants have diverted away from incarceration through other alternatives. In its place, are community service and rehabilitation programs. People who do end up incarcerated, have committed the most serious of crimes.
The third solution proposed by Jacobson was to enact criminal justice reform at the local level. As stated by Jacobson, a piece of national legislation will not solve all the issues our criminal justice system currently faces. In order for our criminal justice system to see real reforms, this needs to occur at the local level.
This is because states vary in how they are able to enact criminal justice reforms. States such as Vermont, have already enacted real changes to their criminal justice system.
Without a plan, these solutions will remain as they are and not be implemented. For criminal justice reforms to take effect, a plan needs to be laid out. This plan needs to identify the most important issues first, followed by their solutions.
This capstone project has identified what causes people to come into contact with the criminal justice system. This is through the lack of early education and employment opportunities for minorities. This project has identified specific issues which trap defendants in the criminal justice system. This stems from defendants who cannot pay court fines. They are subsequently jailed as a result.
This capstone project has identified reforms that provide alternatives to mass incarceration. Placing defendants in specialized courts will result in more reasonable punishments being handed down. These courts have access to programs and resources which provide help for defendants.
There need to be more investments made into meaningful community service programs. These community service programs will give people a sense of belonging in their communities. They can complete these programs feeling better about themselves.
There also needs to be more funding made into rehabilitative programs. These programs give defendants who suffer from mental illness and drug addiction, meaningful help.