The Price We Pay the Legal System
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Imagine getting pulled over because your car’s tail light is out or your window tint is too dark. For millions of people each year, the price of one traffic ticket creates a never-ending cycle of punishment and poverty, keeping adults and juveniles tethered to the U.S. criminal justice system through predatory fines. V sits down with Miranda Sheffield and Joanna Weiss, two advocates who work directly with impacted communities to eliminate the fines and fees associated with the legal system. Ranging from license suspensions to the loss of voting rights, there are many ways people are punished for not paying off minor offenses, and these experts discuss what can be done to stop it.
To get involved in Miranda and Joanna’s work, follow the National Center for Youth Law @NYCLnews and the Fines and Fees Justice Center @FinesandFeesJC on Twitter.
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Joanna Weiss, V Spehar, Miranda Sheffield
V Spehar 00:05
Friends, have you ever had an encounter with the criminal justice system? How about traffic enforcement? How about how to late library book? Well, today I am talking fines fees and fuckery. My friends, even the library realized that charging people fees was impacting people’s well-being. And that’s why a lot of them don’t even do that anymore. Similarly, we know charging people exorbitant fees for all sorts of infractions, including minor ones, does not deter crime, and it doesn’t help anyone’s well-being. So what is the next step here? Can a society built on punishment, collect fines and fees without worsening someone’s economic position? Maybe we should just get rid of those fines and fees altogether. Joining me today are two women fighting to redefine how the criminal justice system profits off of people will talk about those who find themselves crushed by it, especially if they’re financially unstable. Joanna Weiss is the co-founder and co-director of the advocacy group fines and fees Justice Center, and Miranda Sheffield is a campaign coordinator at the National Center for Youth Law, where she is tasked with running its debt free justice campaign. Each of them are working to reform the system. And I am so excited for you to hear how they are doing it. Miranda, Joanna, thank you so much for being here.
Joanna Weiss 01:25
Thank you so much for having us.
V Spehar 01:29
So for the folks at home, who are just really getting to know you now. And maybe let’s start with Miranda, what’s the average day like for you?
Miranda Sheffield 01:38
That’s a really good question V. First of all, thank you so much for having me on the podcast, happy to be here, to have this really important conversation. I think for me a day in the life of my work is I am the debt free justice campaign coordinator. I currently help assist with our national campaign that specifically focuses on young folks that have been impacted by fines and fees. And a lot of the day to day work is really organizing with different partners in different states and have been doing this underground work and finding opportunities to engage more with impacted people, young folks, folks that are still struggling in their maybe mid-20s or so to come to terms with this issue of fines and fees. So it just looks a little bit different. But it’s a lot of broad attempts of like during this because it’s a national campaign. So it requires me to kind of like have my hands a little bit everywhere.
Joanna Weiss 02:49
So, I think a little bit like Miranda, it changes every day, we focus on fines and fees throughout the criminal legal system, really focused, especially in the adult system. And as co-director, I am working with our state teams to work on campaigns in particular states. And we have a national team that’s working on both national campaigns and providing strategic assistance to groups on the ground throughout the country. Whether it’s grassroots groups or judicial system, stakeholders, or advocacy groups are impacted people who are experiencing fines and fees in their own community and helping to find solutions in different places.
V Spehar 03:31
For folks who aren’t aware of this, can you kind of just break down for me the difference between a fine and a fee.
Joanna Weiss 03:40
I think it’s really important to actually distinguish between fines and fees, because they’re, they serve different purposes. And the solutions for reforms are going to look a little bit different, especially in the adult space. A fine is a monetary punishment for breaking the law. And it’s meant to either punish or deter someone from actually breaking the law. A fee is something entirely different. A fee is basically a tax that’s added on to any touch with the criminal legal system. And they come with different names. They can be called assessments or surcharges or fees or costs. But they all are basically costs that are added on top of fines or some other sanction as a way of raising money for government and it can be to raise money for the criminal legal system itself or to something wholly unrelated. In California, there are fees that get added on to traffic tickets that go to support the fishing and game industry. It’s really it really is taxes for every touch with the criminal legal system.
V Spehar 04:43
And when are these fines and fees given out?
Joanna Weiss 04:46
So fees in particular are given throughout the system? There are fees from your very first interaction. There can be fees for booking someone. There can be fees that are attached to conviction, there can be a fees that are attached, regardless of conviction. But just for interacting with the systems, for example, you may have to pay a fee to apply for public defender, the free lawyer that we’re all told that we get, if we can’t afford an attorney and one will be appointed to you. That doesn’t mean there are not fees that attach. There are fees that are attached to a conviction, a whole array of fees. And there are fees post-conviction, there are fees that can attach to supervision like probation or parole, or electronic monitoring. There are fees to pay your fees, right, there are fees. If you go on a payment plan, because you can’t afford to pay at once there can be additional fees for that there can be fees for people who are in custody, including markups on commissary fees for putting money on someone’s commissary account, there can be fees for phone calls exorbitant fees, I might add, there are fees for every touch with the criminal legal system. And depending on where you live, these can total hundreds, or even 1000s, even 10s of 1000s of dollars in the face that can be assessed.
V Spehar 06:03
And y’all are working nationally, are these fees and fines, something that is established state by state or is there like a federal and then a state? Like how does it even start?
Joanna Weiss 06:17
This is a state and local problem. There are very, there are a few fees in the federal system, but very few. Really, this is entrenched in state and local government. And it stems from back in the 80s when the federal government stopped supporting state and local government. And this became a way of fixing budget holes. And in fact, it exploded after 2008 recession. When state and local governments were struggling with how to meet their budgets, they entrenched these fines and fees and raise them almost every single state raised their fines or fees either in amount in quantity or in both. And even after the economy recovered the state and trenched. And that’s why we’re in the crisis that we’re in today. And that there’s all these places that are that are trying to get money this way that’s incredibly inequitable and damaging to communities in particular, but also are really bad economic policy for government as well.
V Spehar 07:18
Yeah. And Miranda, tell me a little bit about who these fees affect the most?
Miranda Sheffield 07:23
Well, it ranges to so many I will say if I had to specifically pinpoint a demographic that this affects, it’s particularly Black and Brown communities that are hit heavy with these fines and fees. And most of the time, the people who are being charged these fees, as most people would know, are people who are already struggling with poverty. And the fascinating thing, why I think so many advocates have kind of been led and wanting to speak up about this, is that the data shows that a lot of these, you know, and an attempt to try to you know, make more money are an attempt to try and like, you know, push the responsibilities for court administration on to families, they what ended up happening is that you would have, let’s say, a million dollars of fines and fees sitting in this like whole tank of collections, right? And even though they were putting out these different types of fines and fees, people were not able to pay them across state. So the money would just sit there. So to a lot of ways it was demonstrating and showing how ineffective it was to even put this forward as a way to kind of hold people accountable. Because no matter how many different attempts that were made, and also even maybe hiring staff to say we’re going to like, viciously go after these folks to get our money, you know, people were not able to pay it. So a lot of how we look at this work, is really looking at it in a way to say this is an effective system that has been set up and it ends up affecting people, I would say particularly a lot of parents, you talk about young folks, the burden ends up being put on most parents, right? And then it’s sad to use this as an example but most times you have parents who are like, am I going to pay this phone bill or am I going to, you know, pay this type of thing for my family or am I going to try to figure out how to put some money aside for this particular issue my child may be faced with.
V Spehar 09:54
So much of crime is tied to poverty and acts of desperation that could be met. Get it in other ways, like by initially helping people in the first place and having equity in the first place. But if you have, let’s say you have a parent who is in a place where they have stolen diapers formula, something like that they’re caught, they are processed. And now in addition to not having the money initially to provide for their child, they are now facing fines and fees from the state to try and clear up the cost that they incurred for a police interaction, the cost that they incurred for booking the cost they incurred for their court dates. How does somebody get out of that?
Miranda Sheffield 10:31
4A gold standard is having a coalition of folks come together and say, we’re not just going to get rid of fines and fees, as we know it, we’re also going to backdate this whole thing and have it where if you had anything in the past, we’re also putting that into the policy or the legislation to go forward. That’s usually a great way to just really abolishing the whole issue of fines and fees in that state or that region or that county or wherever that’s usually the gold standard. Other times, what happens is that they have other advocates kind of push for this, which was like a fee waiver, where they can kind of show what they can and cannot pay, that ends up kind of it can get a little dicey with that, because you can still end up having someone having to meet certain criteria’s, even to access that, and still finding themselves going through the cyclical nature. And I just wanted to speak to this a little bit about, you know, because this is particularly affecting Black folk and brown folk in a certain type of manner. It’s the idea of how we even move through the issue of fines and fees, is actually criminal in itself to even have it as a way to deal with this. Because, you know, there’s already been so much harm, particularly that the government has, you know, put on these folks to, if we say through redlining, and we saved through, you know, the lack of access to banking, and, you know, housing and things like that, just that idea of having this as a method is just really backwards in itself.
Joanna Weiss 12:19
We know from a lot of research, and some of it was qualitative research of actually speaking to people who are impacted by fines and fees and serving them is that looks like about 40% of people committed another crime to come up with the money. But the other thing that happens is you go without basics, you go without the basic needs that you meet, that you need for yourself and your family. There’s survey data that shows about 80% of people go without basic necessities that is paying for food, for rent, for medicine. That’s what happens to people who can’t afford to pay. And it’s incredibly expensive to try to get money from people who don’t have any. So we do more and more draconian things to try to coerce people into coming up with money they don’t have. And so one of the ways that that government has come up with doing that is suspending someone’s driver’s license when they can’t afford to pay. If we want people to pay, making it impossible for them to get to work is bad policy. And we know that actually close to 50% of people with their licenses suspended lose their jobs, or are forced to take a lower paying job. So there’s growing recognition that this is a terrible way to try to coerce people into paying money that they don’t have. And in fact, over the last four years 23 states have stopped doing it or significantly curb doing it. There’s a lot of room for growth still over half the states, they are still suspending your license if you can’t afford to pay your fines and fees. And often it stems from something as minor as a traffic ticket.
V Spehar 14:00
Right. But talk to me about this loss of voting rights. At what point would somebody lose the right to vote because they have an outstanding traffic ticket? Like that’s a poll tax, isn’t it? If you don’t have enough money, you can’t vote that seems very unconstitutional.
Joanna Weiss 14:17
Sure, what the place where we’re seeing disenfranchisement and taking away voting rights for fines and fees is in the felony conviction space. And I think people became aware of it because in Florida, a super majority of Floridians voted that the people who had felony convictions, once they have completed their sentence would be able to vote again. And then the Florida Legislature, subverted the will of the majority of the super majority of Floridians and said you have to be able to pay off all your fines and fees before you can vote. And that prevented almost everyone from actually regaining the right to vote. But although this was made famous in Florida, this is actually the case in most states in this country in 30. states, if you have a felony conviction, you have to pay off all your fines and fees to regain the right to vote.
V Spehar 15:22
Miranda, can you just tell me a little bit about the work that you’re doing with juveniles? As we said in the first segment here, sometimes your children get in trouble. And then the parents are in trouble and infects the entire community. Why is it so important that debt free justice starts with youth offenders?
Miranda Sheffield 15:43
I know many folks, some of your listeners may be aware of the school to prison pipeline, and how that really contributes to how young folks are already kind of being introduced to this criminal justice system. Right. And then the other thing, too, is, I think it’s important to focus on young folks. Because it kind of gives you an early understanding of how horrible our criminal justice system can be when it’s already trying to touch the lives of these young folks who are getting in trouble for very minor things. But it acute the idea of how much it accumulates is the issue and how it can, you know, just put really difficult positions for them. To give an example, we been doing really good work in Kansas with some of our partners there and young folks. And one of the young men who is there, he shared with me, during one of our listening sessions he shared like how he got kicked out of school at an early age, and then didn’t have his family to stay with. So he ended up having to be in the streets, which led to him being sent to jail for various things he would get out of appeal, appeal and be like, you have to find a job, he would be like, well, I can’t get a job because I have the record. And they’re like, Well, you got to figure it out, because you got to pay these fines, and you gotta pay these fees. And if you’re not paying these fines and fees, it will then put us in the position where we will send you back to jail. So it’s a great case. And it’s a great example to look to see how, yes, we have a lot of adults who are struggling with this issue. But if we were able to catch this issue earlier, when it came to young folks, we would be in a different position, I think and how we understand the criminal justice system.
V Spehar 17:43
It is just such a big part of your confidence. Also, as a young person, right? You feel like this has happened to you. Maybe you were 14 or 15. And the first time that you got in a little bit of trouble. Now your family is struggling to pay the fines and fees. Now you’re back in trouble again, because you have to commit a crime to pay the fee. Like you were saying earlier, it just is this terrible cycle. That’s got to be affecting young people’s sense of confidence in the feeling that like, Well, my life is ruined.
Miranda Sheffield 18:07
Yeah, yeah, it’s not even it’s not only just my life is ruined thing. It’s also the weight that they’re carrying. Knowing that I now I’m putting this responsibility on my family. And now my mom is looking at me trying to like maybe trying to be supportive, but also like angry. But this is now a mother additional burden that needs to be carried on top of everything else. And I think it would be because you can see at the data, as I mentioned earlier that folks are not always able to pay this. I think the payment that they are faced with is the mental capacity of struggling to kind of deal with this. And I think also to the effects that it has. It also creates a lot of disharmony, I think, between families, because a lot of families are, you know, not just put in a position of saying how are we going to pay this fine and fee, but also now having to look in a broad way of like, what are all the other things that we’re being faced with? And a lot of times when we’re talking about fines and fees, we just want to focus on that. But it’s very intersectional, actually, that a lot of these families are not just dealing with fines and fees. They’re also just dealing with, you know, their day to day lives of their housing insecurities. You know, maybe they’re in a food desert, and was very interesting in my conversations, the young man that I talked to, he was like, I don’t have a grocery store or in order for me to go to a grocery store. I have to go somewhere. So just think about how all these things are like contributing to how we understand fines and fees, and what it means to be faced with them. But then also the shame that comes with there’s a level of shame that I think some young folks have to me Who threw in this like stigmatizing them? That because they may have done something when they were younger, it stays with them throughout their adulthood and how, how much of a struggle that is?
V Spehar 20:13
Have we seen a correlation for young people who are in the situation, that, you know, we say the likelihood of offending is higher. But I think the likelihood of ending up in other bad situations must be higher for these kids to is there any correlation between not being able to pay your fines and your fees being caught up in the system in this way, and increased risk of falling into human trafficking, domestic violence, unplanned pregnancy, all these other terrible things that keep communities in such harmful spaces?
Joanna Weiss 20:46
there is actually research. First of all, that shows that higher amounts of fines and fees do correlate with higher recidivism rates. So in addition to the fact that we know that people who owe fines and fees are committing crimes in order to pay them off, because there’s no other way for them out of the system, which is a driver of crime. But the other thing is that you are more likely to recidivate. And I think for all the reasons that Miranda laid out what this does to people and their families, in terms of other repercussions, I mean, if you want to talk about trafficking or anything else, and what this leads to is when we looked at the data of, you know, the crimes that people are committing in order to pay off their fines and fees, it falls mostly into a couple of categories. One is selling drugs. And the other thing is, is selling their own bodies. So yes, it actually does contribute to all those, you know, horrible, horrible outcomes that we as a society should be very concerned about. Fines and fees are driver to all of those.
V Spehar 21:48
to me, you are mostly working with adults. And the impact must be slightly different than juveniles. What is the number one thing you’re hearing from adults about being a victim of this system?
Joanna Weiss 22:02
Part of the complication of solving this system is that it looks different everywhere, every community, every state and every locality is implementing and their fines and fees policies in a different way. And the collection practices can be different. But there are definitely universals across the country that are particularly harmful. And one is the driver’s license, suspension and issue. That’s still in most states, if you can’t pay your fines and fees, it means you cannot legally drive. And so what happens is, you face an impossible position when your license is suspended. Either you stopped driving, and you can’t access work, you can’t access childcare, you can’t access grocery, you can’t access health care. Or you have no choice but to continue to drive because you cannot function in most parts of this country without driving. And so most people continue to drive because they have no way of functioning. The next time you’re pulled over, you’re now charged with driving on a suspended license, which is a misdemeanor, almost everywhere. Now you face more fines and fees possible jail time criminal record, which comes with all sorts of collateral consequences. And so a simple traffic ticket that you can’t pay literally traps millions and millions of people in this country, in a never ending cycle of punishment and entrenched poverty. We worked on this issue in New York, for example. And when we ended driver’s license suspensions for failure to pay, it lifted 3.1 million suspensions that were impacting 1.4 million New Yorkers, the numbers are staggering. And how many millions of people are suffering from this, and how it’s impacting the economy, because we’re literally pushing millions of people out of the economy, which means we don’t get tax base from them. And it also means that people are going to need public assistance and other ways of caring for themselves and their families because they can no longer do it themselves. Because we’ve made it impossible. And we talk about tricking the legal system. Also, we should talk about getting people out who are there solely because they are poor, who I think we can all agree that keeping people in the system solely on the basis of poverty makes no sense for anyone,
V Spehar 24:10
because it is so expensive. It’s not like they’re paying these fines and fees and people’s tax dollars are going to these prisons into these police departments into these places. And everybody’s having a lovely time. And there’s tons of resources being passed around. There’s no resources. So where does the money go? How is it being spent?
Joanna Weiss 24:27
And I think that’s the complicating factor is that, you know, this looks lucrative to the group that’s making money on this, but they’re not accounting for who’s paying for the costs of trying to collect this. There was a great study that was done by the Brennan Center, where they calculated, they did a fiscal impact study of 10 different counties and they looked at, you know, how much was being assessed, and how much was collected and calculating some of the costs just some of the costs for collecting that money and even using that. They found that the places they looked at, were spending 40 cents on the dollar on average to collect the money in some places, we’re spending more than $1. And so we have to look at this in a much more holistic way. And we have to look at not just the cost that we can calculate on paper on someone’s budget, but what are we the costs to communities? What are we doing in terms when we extract billions of dollars from poor communities? What are the cost to doing that, and really thinking about the costs that it has to collect this money, instead of just looking at how much revenue comes in, because it’s not a moneymaker? As much as it looks like it is on paper in many places.
V Spehar 25:50
The people at home can’t see my face right now. But I am so frustrated. And I’ve only been listening for like 30 minutes now, how are you guys doing this every day? It’s got to be maddening, like Miranda hearing these stories? Like, how do you stay focused on fixing it?
Miranda Sheffield 26:08
I think for me, it is frustrating, because I think I have just people in my own family who have had to deal with this. And when I was coming up of age, you know, I know that the issue of the license issue was something that was a struggle for me raising being a single mother raising my child, all those things and like, like, can’t catch a break. It’s lurking. Like the fines and the fees, it’s like, we’re gonna find a way to kind of exploit this for people who are already struggling. So to me, you know, it’s there. But I think, you know, a lot of these folks who are touching these families directly, are talking about putting us in situations where we can heal together. And I think a lot of folks are also used to reimagining what it looks like to have accountability, and reimagining what it looks like for us to talk through who’s setting those things in place, like, our campaign is about abolishing all the fines and fees, you know, we can’t continue to think that this is a way to go about addressing harm in our communities, because it’s ineffective, you hear some examples, Joanna Kay, so very ineffective tool. And so a lot of folks are excited about, you know, moving forward and sharing stories and sharing other ways of how they’re really trying to survive and helping each other out with resources, because it’s something that’s not going to go away overnight. So in the meantime, you got to be able to come together and say, We’re gonna be alright, we’re gonna, you know, we’re gonna figure out how to kind of support one another, within our state within our community, and do those things.
Joanna Weiss 28:05
And I think, for me, what keeps me in this work is sometimes rage and frustration that there’s literally no bottom. Even now working in this field for years, I think almost every week, I still hear about a new feature that I didn’t even know existed. That is, is so unjust, cruel and counterproductive. But the other thing that keeps me in the field is that this is actually an area where we can make change. And one of the things that’s really inspiring about this field is the growing recognition across the political spectrum. This is truly a nonpartisan issue that has enjoys tremendous support. In red states, blue states, purple states, and localities. And so this has been reformed all around the country and driver’s license suspensions. The first two states that ended driver’s license suspensions for debt, were California and Mississippi. And those are not two states that we usually think of. We’re running another campaign right now called N justice fees, which we’re doing again with bipartisan partners, and this is moving in states red, blue and purple. This is truly a doable reform. That I think, you know, people recognize in any political environment, that keeping people in the system solely on the basis of poverty and continuing to punish people, for being poor makes no sense for everyone. It’s bad for communities and it’s bad for government.
V Spehar 29:35
What power do judges have to potentially even start to reduce the amount of harm that fees do?
Joanna Weiss 29:43
It varies tremendously. In New York, all the fees, for example, at the state level are generally mandatory, and judges are given very little discretion to do anything about them in other places, judges can waive them. You know, based on ability to pay, you know, or at their own discretion. Here’s the thing about fees. Fees are a system that are really counterproductive. And they’re an unjust system of taxation, that is being levied very disproportionately on communities of color. So the solution can’t be that we consider ability to pay for fees, they have no basis in the system at all, they need to come out. And this is where Miranda and I think are really unified in our views of fees that they have no place in the justice system. And so giving judge’s discretion, you know, maybe better than having something that’s mandatory and applied everywhere. But the problem is, the way that discretion is going to be doled out, is going to disproportionately be harmful, still to the same communities that are already being disproportionately impacted by fees. And research shows it. And we have judges who do things like look at the shoes that you’re wearing and decide that you can afford to pay. We know that people in the criminal legal system are overwhelmingly indigent, I think between 80 and 85%, are eligible for public defenders. So why we are trying to extract money from people who we know, almost universally have no money makes no sense at all. So why would we use the justice system of all places a core government function that is meant to, you know, support all of our rights and responsibilities? Why are we taxing people there? And we’ve done polling, and Republicans and Democrats are all in agreement on this. You know, more than three and five voters, even among Republicans agree that the justice system serves everyone and we should not be extracting fees from the criminal legal system, and people going through it.
V Spehar 31:54
So what do we do? What can we do?
Miranda Sheffield 31:56
What can we do? It’s really what we’re doing right now, I think a lot of people really don’t know how much of an issue this is from juveniles, to adults to everything, but people are being affected by it. Because if I sit down with anywhere, and we’re having this conversation, someone’s going to tell me, oh, yeah, I remember how my cousin couldn’t go to work because their license was suspended. Or I remember how my aunt had to be stressed out because she couldn’t take care of these different fines and fees for her son or my cousin, whatever. So I think what we’re doing is first, we just have to educate ourselves a little bit about this issue, and also find ways to get involved, you know, and support the campaigns, because I’m pretty sure between the fines and fees, Justice Center, the debt free justice campaign, there are ways to get involved with this campaign. So we’re not lacking in that endeavor. And I think that finding out how to also challenge and push your local official, you know, to say, hey, you know, I know this is something that’s going on in my head and my community, and I know a lot of folks are affected about it. So like, what can we do to do something about this is some of the ways I would suggest.
V Spehar 33:10
Yeah, and for folks who are maybe listening, and going, well, this isn’t going to happen to me, I’m going to tell you right now, one of the biggest fees and fines things is DUIs or driving under the influence. And it’s, it’s not just happening to people in cities who are committing major crimes. I was reading, Joanna, on your website, the fines and fees, Justice Center. A lot of these tickets are going to people who live in small towns, like if it’s a traffic violation, there’s a disproportionate amount of rural people who are affected even that think like, well, I mind my business, this would never happen to me, why should I care? Because it could happen to you and it’s $10,000.
Joanna Weiss 33:46
It could happen to people. And I just want to emphasize though I think when people think about traffic tickets and what’s coming to them, they think I’m automatically DUI, that is a tiny percentage, unfortunately, of what we’re talking about, and yes, they come with ridiculous fees that may vines that make people trapped. But for the vast majority of people it’s a really minor offense that are keeping people tied to the criminal legal system forever. With no way out. And in rural communities. And it really dictates, you know, how are we using our public safety resources? You know, we found in Buffalo, there was a great investigative journal journalist article that showed that in Buffalo, there were eight times as many tickets written for tinted windows as there were for speeding. Even though tinted windows were a factor in virtually no accidents in Buffalo and speeding was a factor in most of them. So when we use fines and fees for revenue, we are encouraging this kind of perverse incentives of our cops that are we’re using our cops as basically as armed debt collectors and we’re using our Prosecutors to enforce the stuff collection and we’re using judges as debt collectors rather than enforcing and protecting public safety. You know, I think that the solutions are that people can be pushing for are pretty clear, I believe if the demand that our legislators and license suspensions for anything other than dangerous driving, we should not be keeping people off the road when we know that, you know, more than 80% of Americans need a car to drive to work. Taking away a license mean, you’re actually taking away someone’s livelihood, and a means of caring for themselves and their families. We need to tell our legislators that we don’t want fees in the justice system, they all have to come out, we’re not going to tax people in the system who are disproportionately poor and disproportionately black and brown, that they are not in charge of paying for government, government pays for government. And so these are simple solutions that can happen everywhere. And the things if people want to get involved I’ve their campaigns happening around the country, both in our driver’s license suspension campaign, and our in our new end justices campaign. We have information on what’s going on in your own community around the country up on both of those websites, both free to drive and justice views. And so, you know, check out what’s happening and get involved in your own community. And these are happening also at the local level. It’s not just state based reform that can happen. You know, we’ve worked on campaigns in localities around the country and find out how fines and fees are impacting your own community and what you can do and, you know, from ending the fees to charge people for prison and jail phone calls and other fees that are imposed on people in custody, but even to the equity and how does your parking, booting and towing work? And who is it impacting? And how and what happens if you, you know, if you get a parking ticket that you can’t pay? What are the consequences in your community? And amending it to make sure that, you know, the consequences for breaking the law are not so disproportionate that it’s derailing people’s lives.
Joanna Weiss 36:48
What’s your advice to people who might be listening to the show right now, they themselves or someone that they love or care for is struggling to pay their fees and fines? Is there a place that they could go for help?
Joanna Weiss 37:12
I mean, this is complicated, because it depends on where they are and what they can do. And unfortunately, you know, in the bail context, we’ve seen that people, you know, can pay off people’s bail, it doesn’t work this way. And the fines and fees are enough, because the problem is there’s billions and billions and billions of dollars in debt. We’ve documented 27 billion with very partial data of outstanding fines and fees debt. And that is that is literally the tip of the iceberg.
V Spehar 37:39
And these are manufactured fees. These are this is money that they have made up.
Joanna Weiss 37:44
It is money that literally doesn’t exist, it’s sitting on the books, because it’s never gonna get paid. But the consequences are still weighing people down and really are an incredible burden on communities. Yeah, I mean, this is incredibly, incredibly challenging. I think that you can get in touch with groups that are working on campaigns in your own communities, it’s a good place to start, we have some of that information up on free to drive and injustice fees. But unfortunately, there’s not a quick fix except for to get these things out of the system. But sharing your experiences and how this is impacting you can inform how these campaigns operate and the solutions that they’re advocating for. And we encourage people to get involved and make their voices heard, because that’s how we’re going to find the solutions that are best for each community.
V Spehar 38:32
Absolutely. I want to thank you both so much for being with me today. And we will link to the organizations and the work that you’re doing the show notes so that people can easily find you follow up. You’re both websites that we’re going to link to are just rich with information and case studies and proof of everything that we discussed here today. We really appreciate all the work you’re doing to help folks out.
Miranda Sheffield 38:53
Thank you so much.
Joanna Weiss 38:54
Thank you so much. I’m really thrilled you guys are covering this and covering our work and shedding light on it. It’s this is incredible. So we’re really, really grateful.
V Spehar 39:05
Now friends, the conversation didn’t end there. While thanking Miranda and Joanna for joining me, Joanna and I briefly chatted about just how crazy certain fines and fees can get for folks with concrete examples. So we’re going to actually share that audio with you and all those fascinating facts. That will come right after the break. Hey friends welcome back. As I mentioned before the break Joanna from the fines and fees Justice Center, stick around a little after our initial recording to share some examples of just how weird and random some of these fines are. Joanna, what are some examples while we’re doing this of like, the most absurd fees or fines that I could put into the beginning?
Joanna Weiss 39:59
Yeah. Ah, there’s one that just came up recently that I always talk about, because it’s so astounding to me. They have something in Nevada called a man down fee. So if you are in custody, and you are injured, either let’s say you’re in a fight or you have an accident, or even an altercation with the guard, if you cannot walk yourself to the infirmary, and they need to come get you, they charge you $85 That is the man. And so we actually talked to a guy who was injured in a in a fight with another incarcerated person, he was attacked, and he was badly injured. But he knew he did not have that $85. And he staggered his way back to his cellblock, where he got two of his friends to help carry him to the infirmary. Because he could not afford that $85 fee. And Nevada is sort of an interesting one to highlight because Nevada is the only state in the country that Eve throughout the pandemic did not suspend medical copay fees. So if you got sick in Nevada during COVID, which was, you know, highly likely, and you needed to see a doctor, you had to pay money for it, even if it was pandemic related. And then, but in most states, they do charge things. In many states, they charge, they charge costs for getting access to basic health care. While you’re in custody, which of course, again, is bad for everyone, we end up with people who can’t get their basic medical needs met because they can’t afford to pay it. And you know, even a copay, even if the copay is, is a couple bucks, or $5, or $10, which isn’t totally unusual. You know, if you’re lucky to be making 27 cents an hour, that is a whole lot of money, to be able to go to the doctor and get basic needs met. And so people go without. And that’s if you’re lucky enough to even have a job in custody, otherwise, you’re actually, you know, relying entirely on loved ones, being able to support them.
V Spehar 42:15
Is there any that you can think of that, like the average person who’s not in custody might encounter?
Joanna Weiss 42:21
Frankly, you know, progressive California, if you look at like, where fees are atrocious, look no further than California traffic tickets. Were a fine in California for breaking of traffic laws. $100. And the fees that get attached to that traffic ticket are $390. So that ticket ends up costing almost $500, so when we know that, you know, the average American 40% of Americans before the pandemic didn’t have access to $400 in case of an emergency, we’re literally talking about a traffic ticket in California can derail the lives of an average person of average means
V Spehar 43:00
I know there’s been times in my own life for like $25 would have been life changing, like in whichever way like where you’re like shit, that’s actually gonna like kind of make or break this week. I can’t imagine. Yeah, you have $100? Because you’re 10 miles over the speed limit. But now it’s $500. How the hell are you going to do this? Now I lost my license because it couldn’t pay it. How? Yeah, it’s a slippery slope. And that is that is a spooky one.
Joanna Weiss 43:23
And the council fees, you know, I think they work differently depending on where you live, like everything else. And in some places that can be you know, you know, a small, relatively low amount to apply for a public defender, which you have to pay no matter what. But it can also dissuade people from exercising their constitutional rights to a lawyer, because they know they can’t afford to pay those fees. In some places, those fees are assessed by the hour. So every additional hour of help you need from a public defender, you’re going to have to pay that some people are in many places you’re charged room and board for every day that you’re incarcerated. By the time you get out you owe 10s of 1000s of dollars you’re never paying off. And what they do is you know you’re on the hook for it forever. So if you get out and you are lucky enough to get a job, which is you know, no small feat if you’re coming out of the criminal legal system, it’s very difficult to get a job that even pays minimum wage or basic needs. That money they can collect on you for forever. We’ve heard about people in Connecticut, they just have to perform on this because in Connecticut, they were going after you for the rest of your life. So if you ever got that came into any money, they would dock it to pay for what you the 10s of 1000s of dollars of debt that you would have from coming out of custody. If you inherit your parents’ house. They’ll take the house, even if it leaves you homeless because you owe that money. So it’s really that like this is, it’s who this is done to and the draconian way it’s done and the lack of care and the lack of concern that this is going to that this is going to have terrible, terrible outcomes and isn’t benefiting anyone.
V Spehar 45:06
You can’t even after you serve your time and your probation, you’re still incarcerated by that.
Joanna Weiss 45:13
It’s a lifetime sentence, find them fees are forever. In fact, we what we know is that people who have public defenders never pay it off. There’s a great study that came out of Pennsylvania that basically show people with private attorneys who can afford to pay this, you know, eventually will pay it and walk away. But people have public defenders, which is, again, 80% of the people in the criminal system won’t pay it off ever. So the consequences stay forever. That license can be suspended forever. If you get a DWI. Usually there’s a restricted amount of time that your license gets suspended. So it could be like six months, you lose your license. However, if you owe debt, it’s forever.
V Spehar 45:48
It’s just forever and ever and ever. And it is so frustrating and so unfair. And I hope that people especially here, it doesn’t make any money, it doesn’t deter crime, and it doesn’t enrich communities, these people aren’t paying a debt into the community. And then somehow, there’s like murals or community gardens being put up or funded. Like there’s nothing that comes from it.
Joanna Weiss 46:08
No, what comes from it is a bloated criminal legal system that that just keeps getting bigger and bigger to fund itself to do more imposition, more collection, and it’s just the circle goes on and on. So people need to understand what this is doing to families.
V Spehar 46:23
Absolutely. Thanks, Joanna. I really learned a lot today. I hope that you did too. Be sure to tune in to this Tuesday’s episode where we dig into the headlines that you might have missed. As always, I want to hear your good news. Leave me a voicemail at 612-293-8550. Don’t forget to subscribe to Lemonada Premium on Apple podcasts where we’ve got lots of extras for you and follow me at under the desk news on TikTok and Instagram. Take care and I will see you on Tuesday.
V INTERESTING is a Lemonada Media Original. Our producers are Rachel Neel, Xorje Olivares, Martín Macías, Jr. And Dani Matias. Executive Producers are Stephanie Wittels Wachs and Jessica Cordova Kramer. Mixing and Scoring is by Brian Castillo, Johnny Evans and Ivan Kuraev. music is by Seth Applebaum. Please help others find the show by rating and reviewing wherever you listen and follow us across all social platforms at @VitusSpehar and @UnderTheDeskNews, also, @LemonadaMedia. If you want more be interesting, subscribe to Lemonada premium only on Apple podcasts.