Friday, August 17, 2018

An Issue Reformers Will Ignore

This is bad. The editorial board of the Philadelphia Inquirer has found

According to reporting by Philadelphia-based journalist Maura Ewing — published in the Appeal, a blog of the Harvard Law School and Philadelphia Weekly as a part of the "Broke in Philly" series — the city routinely keeps 30 percent of bail deposits as "processing fees"even if the initial charges are dropped.

When people are charged with a crime, judges can impose cash bail. The accused is required to pay 10 percent of the bail amount. No matter what the outcome of a person's case, the city gets a 30 percent cut.  That means that people who were wrongfully arrested and charged are literally paying for the mistake of officials. It's also putting burdens on people who can least afford it.

The bail fee is one of many fines and fees that the court imposes on defendants. Unlike most fees, which are dictated by state law, the bail fee is in the city's control and goes to the city itself. In fiscal year 2018, the bail fee added $2.9 million to the city's general fund.

Both the city's mayor and its district attorney are addressing the situation, presumably because they no longer can ignore it (also because the mayor and the DA are Democrats, the latter official occupying an ideological space somewhere to the left of Bernie Sanders).

However, this practice, reported by the New Orleans Advocate, is worse:

On Friday, (US District Judge Sarah) Vance declared that "undisputed evidence" shows the 13 judges of Orleans Parish Criminal District Court have "a policy or practice of not inquiring into criminal defendants' ability to pay before those individuals are imprisoned for nonpayment of court debts."

She also declared that the judges have an "institutional conflict of interest" in making such poverty determinations themselves.

That's because the proceeds from fines and fees go directly to the court's Judicial Expense Fund, a kitty controlled by the judges that can be used for a broad range of judicial expenses. Fines and fees have contributed about $1 million a year to the court's coffers.

Vance ruled that the court's failure to "provide a neutral forum for determination of such persons' ability to pay is unconstitutional."

The decision appears to leave it up to the court to decide how to set up a mechanism for such decisions.

Seafood gumbo and crawfish boil can get pretty expensive for judges except, of course, when poor defendants are paying the freight. It  might not be where the fines and fees have been going- but the temptation is undeniable, even if the burdensome assessments are imposed to enhance the court system. The court's fund and especially the general fund are legitimate destinations for bail money or fines/assessments, but not (as in Orleans Parish) when judges are disinterested in a defendant's ability to pay.

Prior to a finding of guilt, no money innocuously termed "processing fees" or otherwise should go to the public kitty. Nor should judges be permitted to impose costs upon a defendant, pre- or post- conviction, without determining his financial means.  (Video below, from The Young Turks, is worthwhile, notwithstanding Uygur implying the criminal justice system is a bowl of cherries for middle-class individuals. The biggest problem is for the working poor.)

Remember this especially when politicians allegedly intent on criminal justice "reform" ignore these practices in favor of decrying the imprecise and nebulous, bestial "mass incarceration."

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