Commit the crime and keep paying and paying
It’s no secret that the prison system in the United States needs a little work. A report last November  calculated that 3,278 prisoners are serving life in prison without parole for nonviolent crimes—most of which were drug-related and others as simple as shoplifting three belts from a department store.
But a new NPR investigation found yet another problem in our broken prison system : defendants being increasingly charged fees as they go through court or to prison or receive probation or parole. Some of these fees are obvious, such as hiring an attorney to represent the defendant. Other fees, however, are less obvious.
NPR investigative correspondent Joseph Shapiro shared his expertise on this issue. He spoke of how, as the criminal justice system gets more and more expansive, states are under a lot of pressure to keep taxes low and their budgets balanced. In order to pay for the expansions, defendants are charged with fees which can add up to large sums, especially when interest is adding onto those fees.
NPR included a cast study of a man who stole a can of beer. He was given two options: either spend 12 months in jail, or pay $12 a day to wear an electronic monitoring device as punishment for his minor offense. But here’s the twist:
“Well, those (monitoring bracelets) are expensive,” said Shapiro. “And he had to pay $12 a day. He had to get a landline phone. He had to pay a private probation agency to supervise him. It was over $400 a month. This guy had been homeless. He just moved into subsidized housing. He was paying $25 a month for his apartment, and he had no income other than food stamps. So $12 a day, he couldn't afford it.” Consequently, this man suffering from alcoholism and poverty went to jail anyways for not being able to afford the bracelet.
Another woman in the report is a recovering drug addict who came out of jail with over $10,000 worth of debt. “I made the choice to break the law,” she said, “but they don't make it any easier for anyone who's trying to rehabilitate themselves to get above water. And I'm doing everything that I can, and I just—I mean, relapses aren't even a thought to me. This is the only thing that is hindering me.” She was in jail—not working—and then was expected to pay the fines. She now lives in a treatment house and has to work two jobs just to keep afloat.
The saying “Commit the time, do the time” comes to mind for many. But the incredible amount of stress weighing on the shoulders of these individuals is horrendous. They are poor, suffering, vulnerable, and going through extreme hardship.
“If they're constantly in fear of falling behind on their payments and going back to jail, then that's counterproductive,” Shapiro said.
Catholic social teaching reminds us that we need to give preferential options to the poor and vulnerable. These people committed crimes, yes, and should serve a just sentence for their wrongdoings. But perhaps we must reconsider what a just sentence is for their crimes. Instead of constantly knocking them back down by loading large amounts of debt onto their shoulders, we need to find a way to help build them back up—especially when their intentions are to rehabilitate and get their lives back on track.