NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


February 27, 2006

Almost every encounter with the criminal justice system these days can give rise to a fee, says Adam Liptak of the New York Times. These charges often include application fees and copayments for public defenders, probation fees, halfway house fees, insurance fees, drug test fees and other various fees.

The sums raised by these fees are intended to help offset some of the enormous costs of operating the criminal justice system. But ever-mounting fees devastate people emerging from prison who have no money, no credit and who live in fear of going back to jail if they default on these fees. Some states even charge interest or forbid voting until they collect the fees.

National figures concerning fees assessed on criminals are not available, but here a few examples:

  • According to the American Bar Association, at least 15 states, including New Jersey and Connecticut, charge application fees to people seeking court-appointed lawyers; Washington state charges people convicted of certain crimes $100 so their DNA can be put in a database.
  • Louisiana courts billed a criminal $127,000 for trial costs, housing costs, feeding and transporting his jury from across the state. Furthermore, the bill included the following items: Seafood Palace for $435.68, Ruby Tuesday for $312.66 and Best Suites for $16,874.33.
  • Washington state sends 79,000 bills each month to former offenders, hoping to make a dent in the $1.2 billion they owe; the state collected $25 million last year and the bulk of the money funds prison room and board, averaging $50 per day.

The prospect of paying for court costs likely prevents some defendants from going to trial, says Vanita Gupta of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Innocent defendants understandably prefer a guilty plea versus a trial when the downside includes a longer sentence and debt.

Source: Adam Liptak, "Debt to Society Is Least of Costs for Ex-Convicts," New York Times, February 23, 2006.

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