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How Court Debt Erects Permanent Barriers to Reentry

Jared Thorburg sits in his living room playing with his cat, at his home in Westminster, Colo. After getting a traffic ticket and a $165 fine that Thorburg was unable to pay, the fine grew, and he ended up spending 10 days in jail in May 2012 to settle the debt. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

One of the most significant barriers to reentry is the imposition of fines, fees, surcharges, costs, and other monetary penalties (collectively “criminal justice debt”). One-third of California’s released prisoners return home to Los Angeles following their incarceration. They are hobbled not only by restrictive rules, laws and policies relating to their criminal histories, but also by debts that limit their available resources to successfully reenter society.

One of my clients, Mr. Smith, is trying to expunge his conviction for petty theft. He owes over $2,000 in restitution, probation costs, and court fees. He cannot pay this hefty sum because he is unemployed—in part because of his criminal history. In reviewing his expungement petition, the judge notes the outstanding restitution and costs, and denies the petition. Mr. Smith has no way out of the debt trap—with his criminal conviction, he won’t be able to secure the job he needs to make sufficient income to pay off his debts.

Criminal justice debts are a growing national trend, but the problem is especially acute in Los Angeles. Due to a strained economy, Los Angeles courts are relying on court fees to revitalize their coffers. These fees go towards state funds for court construction and court operations, as well as locally, to salaries, benefits, and public agency retirement contributions for judges. In the last five years, Los Angeles trial courts collected over $1 billion in late fees (called “civil assessment fees”) charged to defendants when they did not pay their traffic or criminal court debt on time.

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Though the fees are small in isolation, the accumulated criminal justice debt can total hundreds or even thousands of dollars for a single person, an overwhelming amount for most people reentering society, 90 percent of whom are poor and a disproportionate percentage of whom are people of color.

Though the fees are small in isolation, the accumulated criminal justice debt can total hundreds or even thousands of dollars for a single person.


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These debts are part and parcel of a system that creates permanent debtors out of people with conviction histories. In California, various clean slate remedies allow for expungement of criminal records, providing individuals a better chance to secure jobs, housing, and benefits. However, many financially disadvantaged people are unable to take advantage of these remedies because full payment of fines and fees is a prerequisite. This debt therefore has a damaging effect on housing and employment prospects. Employers and private landlords routinely conduct background checks, which reveal criminal records that cannot be expunged due to financial obstacles. On top of that, wage and tax garnishments are increasingly used to collect criminal debt, which can eat away at one’s income from earnings. As such, criminal justice debt acts as a bar to gainful employment, increases the risk of recidivism, and creates barriers to reentry long after court-ordered sentences are completed.

One such barrier is a suspended driver’s license. In California, a driver’s license can be suspended when a traffic ticket goes unpaid. While some maintain that driving is a privilege, for many people driving is a lifeline. Recently incarcerated people are especially vulnerable to the consequences of driver’s license suspensions because of their persistent financial hardship. They often need to drive to satisfy their parole or post-release supervision conditions. Many reentering parents are also required to drive to visitations and parental classes in order to regain custody of their children post-incarceration. Still, others who have conviction histories find jobs like truck driving, courier services, and home care workers, easier to obtain. These jobs all require a valid driver’s license.

What’s worse, re-incarceration is a serious threat. A recent report by prominent civil rights and legal services groups in California concluded that Blacks and Latinos were systematically stopped, fined, and arrested for driving with a suspended license. This misdemeanor offense carries with it a criminal conviction, a basis for violation of probation or parole, years of probation, and more fines and fees.

What is particularly insidious is that individuals who are unable to pay their debts are given an “option” to convert their fees to jail time or to perform “community service” for a fee. Their labor is then extracted at no cost to the state, but at tremendous cost to the person’s time and job opportunity. Unsurprisingly, this style of debt peonage has reverberating effects across all labor markets. Researchers at UCLA have theorized that it leads to the depression of labor standards and to the displacement of other workers.

In an era when policymakers are, at best, attempting to undo the effects of mass incarceration by decreasing jail populations and promoting out-of-custody rehabilitative programs, re-incarcerating people to “collect” on court debt is extraordinarily punitive. It does unsurprisingly little to deter serious and violent crime. “Repeat” offenders are created out of nothing but shaky finances, despite a person’s genuine attempts to be law-abiding members of society. Moreover, it is a drain on public resources without much gain. California, to date, boasts over $11 billion in uncollected court debt, and over 4 million driver’s licenses suspended for inability to pay court-debt.

Jurisdictions across the country, and especially in California, should reverse this trend by adopting laws that do not punish poverty. Expungements should not depend on the petitioner’s ability to pay outstanding criminal justice debt. Laws like SB 881, which ends driver’s license suspensions for outstanding traffic debt, should be passed to promote the financial independence of those who are seeking a meaningful second chance at life. There must be a dramatic retooling of the way that court debt is imposed, or else the current system is doomed to create permanent barriers to economic security long after incarceration.

Theresa Zhen

Theresa Zhen is a Skadden Fellow at A New Way of Life Reentry Project in Los Angeles, CA where she represents formerly incarcerated and convicted people in criminal and traffic debt proceedings.

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