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Criminal fines, in more than one way

 

Much has been made of the use of fines and other charges associated with the criminal justice system. The aftermath of Ferguson here in Missouri has brought in to focus the heavy subsidy these fines and fees provide for the courts, prosecution and even the police. The use of fines and fees no longer serve any justice related purpose, but instead fund the systems operation.

 

At one time, the courts and the rest of the criminal justice system were viewed as an essential function of government. It was expected that taxes would fund the operation, and while some fees or fines would be imposed, they would serve a minor administrative or punitive function, and not be expected to fund the majority of the operation of the city government.

 

In a chicken-or-egg scenario, since the 1970s, the criminal justice system has been expected to deal with more complex issues as other areas of government have shrunk or never were developed.

The war on drugs began and was used to incarcerate increasing numbers of offenders, increasing many operational costs to the system. 

As the mentally ill were deinstitutionalized in the 1970s, no adequate apparatus was created to respond to this issue, and it fell the police and criminal justice system to deal with these individuals on an ad hoc basis.

The underlying problem for the criminal justice system is it can never be self-funding, as that creates pressures on entities to use the police to drive revenue, as was demonstrated by a city like Ferguson.

It also appears in cases involving civil forfeiture, where law enforcement becomes aggressive in seizing property to adequately fund their own operational needs.

None of these practices produces "justice." While it may make sense to use fees and fines in some circumstances, in the criminal courts, where up to 80 percent of defendants are indigent, it becomes one more symptom of a broken system.

Source: brennancenter.org, "Curbing Cash Register Style Justice," Lauren-Brooke Eisen, October 26, 2015

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