I have posted many articles similar to this one. It is another way – there are so many – that our criminal justice system is unfair. Tragically, the story you read hear about Ms. Tillman is the story being played out every day in America’s courts.

We can smugly ignore these problems, but I implore you to join me in raising hell about it – give voice to the voiceless! 

This is an excellent examination and expose of the problem, but a long article. Read it and weep. Read how thousands of innocent people are sent to jail only because they can’t afford to post bail.

We all should be ashamed that this is today’s America; the courts are actually aggravating and perpetuating poverty.

“What we’ve seen in our research is that the mechanisms vary, depending on the region,” says Joanna Weiss, co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center. “But they have one thing in common: They use the justice system to wring revenue out of the poorest Americans — the people who can afford it the least.” Aside from taxes, she says, “criminal-justice debt is now a de facto way of funding a lot of American cities.”

 

Excerpts from the Article:

On a muggy afternoon in October 2017, Jamie Tillman walked into the public library in Corinth, Miss., and slumped down at one of the computers on the ground floor. In recent years, Tillman, who is slight and freckled, with reddish blond hair that she often wears piled atop her head, had been drifting from her hometown, Nashville — first to southern Tennessee, to be with a boyfriend and their infant son, and then, after she and the boyfriend split, across the state border to Corinth to look for work. The town, to Tillman, represented a chance for a turnaround. If she was able to get a part-time job at a big-box store, she could put a deposit on a rental apartment and see a psychiatrist for what she suspected was bipolar disorder. She could take steps toward regaining custody of her son from her boyfriend’s mother. “I needed to support myself,” she told me recently. But potential employers weren’t calling her back, and Tillman was exhausted. In the hushed calm of the library, she closed her eyes and fell asleep.

When she awoke, a pair of uniformed police officers were standing over her. “I was terrified,” she recalled. “I couldn’t figure out what was happening.” (Library patrons had complained about her behavior.) Ignoring Tillman’s protests that she wasn’t drunk — she was just scared and tired, she remembers saying — the officers handcuffed her wrists behind her back and took her to the jail in Corinth to await a hearing on a misdemeanor charge of public intoxication. Five days later, clad in an orange jumpsuit, her wrists again cuffed, Tillman found herself sitting in the gallery of the local courthouse, staring up at the municipal judge, John C. Ross.

Tillman did her best to stay calm. She had been arrested on misdemeanor charges before — most recently for drug possession — and in her experience, the court either provided defendants with a public defender or gave them the option to apply for a cash bond and return later for a second hearing. “But there was no lawyer in this courtroom,” Tillman says. “There was no one to help me.” Instead, one after another, the defendants were summoned to the bench to enter their pleas and exchange a few terse words with Ross, a white-haired, pink-cheeked Corinth native who dismissed most of them with the same four words: “Good luck to you.” Many of the defendants were being led back out the way they came, in the direction of the jail.

Around 11 a.m., the judge read Tillman’s name. She stood. “Ms. Tillman, you’re here on a public drunk charge,” Ross said. “Do you admit that charge or deny it?” Tillman told me that she thought she had no choice but to plead guilty — it was unlikely, she believed, that the judge would take her word over that of the arresting officers. “I admit, your honor,” she said. “I just want to get me out of here as soon as possible.” Under Mississippi state law, public intoxication is punishable by a $100 fine or up to 30 days in jail. Ross opted for the maximum fine. Tillman began to cry.

The Federal Reserve Board has estimated that 40 percent of Americans don’t have enough money in their bank accounts to cover an emergency expense of $400. Tillman didn’t even have $10. She couldn’t call her family for help. She was estranged from her father and from her mother, who had custody of Tillman’s two young daughters from a previous relationship.

Jamie Tillman in Corinth, Miss. “I thought, Because we’re poor, because we’re of a lower class, we aren’t allowed real freedom.
Ross explained the system in his court: For every day a defendant stayed in the Alcorn County jail, $25 was knocked off his or her fine. Tillman had been locked up for five days as she awaited her hearing, meaning she had accumulated a credit of $125 toward the overall fine of $255. (The extra $155 was a processing fee.) Her balance on the fine was now $130. Was Tillman able to produce that or call someone who could?

“I can’t,” Tillman responded, so softly that the court recorder entered her response as “inaudible.” She tried to summon something more coherent, but it was too late: The bailiff was tugging at her sleeve. She would be returned to the jail until Oct. 14, she was informed, at which point Ross would consider the fine paid and the matter settled.

That night, Tillman says, she conducted an informal poll of the 20 or so women in her pod at the Alcorn County jail. A majority, she says, were incarcerated for the same reason she was: an inability to pay a fine. Some had been languishing in jail for weeks. The inmates even had a phrase for it: “sitting it out.” Tillman’s face crumpled. “I thought, Because we’re poor, because we’re of a lower class, we aren’t allowed real freedom,” she recalled. “And it was the worst feeling in the world.”

No government agency comprehensively tracks the extent of criminal-justice debt owed by poor defendants, but experts estimate that those fines and fees total tens of billions of dollars. That number is likely to grow in coming years, and significantly: National Public Radio, in a survey conducted with the Brennan Center for Justice and the National Center for State Courts, found that 48 states increased their civil and criminal court fees from 2010 to 2014. And because wealthy and middle-class Americans can typically afford either the initial fee or the services of an attorney, it will be the poor who shoulder the bulk of the burden.

“You think about what we want to define us as Americans: equal opportunity, equal protection under the law,” Mitali Nagrecha, the director of Harvard’s National Criminal Justice Debt Initiative, told me. “But what we’re seeing in these situations is that not only are the poor in the United States treated differently than people with means, but that the courts are actually aggravating and perpetuating poverty.”

Why they do so is in part a matter of economic reality: In areas hit by recession or falling tax revenue, fines and fees help pay the bills. (The costs of housing and feeding inmates can be subsidized by the state.) As the Fines and Fees Justice Center, an advocacy organization based in New York, has documented, financial penalties on the poor are now a leading source of revenue for municipalities around the country. In Alabama, for example, the Southern Poverty Law Center took up the case of a woman who was jailed for missing a court date related to an unpaid utility bill. In Oregon, courts have issued hefty fines to the parents of truant schoolchildren. Many counties around the country engage in civil forfeiture, the seizure of vehicles and cash from people suspected (but not necessarily proven in court) of having broken the law. In Louisiana, pretrial diversion laws empower the police to offer traffic offenders a choice: Pay up quickly, and the ticket won’t go on your record; fight the ticket in court, and you’ll face additional fees.

“What we’ve seen in our research is that the mechanisms vary, depending on the region,” says Joanna Weiss, co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center. “But they have one thing in common: They use the justice system to wring revenue out of the poorest Americans — the people who can afford it the least.” Aside from taxes, she says, “criminal-justice debt is now a de facto way of funding a lot of American cities.”

 

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