Justice System Fines & Fees Perpetuate Poverty
Forcing defendants to pay excessively for their case and punishment disempowers them from taking charge of their own lives and increases the likelihood they’ll reoffend.
Judge Shanta Owens
When I decided to run for judge, I was a true newcomer to politics. As a prosecutor in the district attorney’s office in Birmingham, I was very familiar with how the courts work, but I had no political experience. Judges deal with lives and liberty, so I wanted to make sure there was a competent judge in the position. I’ve always been passionate about the criminal justice system. I wanted to make sure victims had their day in court and that the rights of the criminally accused were protected. I’ve always had an issue with [people] viewing defendants as sub-human, as beneath the rest of us.
I don’t have a personal story where I’ve personally been charged with a crime and acquitted, but I do have the ability to understand situations and circumstances that are far worse than mine. I didn’t see a lot of people who looked like me on the bench, who could understand what other folks were going through. I had this yearning to sit on the bench and understand people where they were. When I decided to run, a little over 10 years ago, I thought some of the punishments were too stiff for crimes that didn’t deserve it. It was really important for me to be able to make sure the right people were punished and that second chances could be provided.
The criminal justice system and our prisons are populated with people of lower socio-economic status. There is a direct correlation between poverty and crime. It could be the result of where people live and how police are patrolling their neighborhoods. They have more contact with the system, and nine times out of ten, they can’t afford counsel.
We haven’t always had a public defender system so lawyers in the private bar who may not have participated in criminal cases were appointed. It gave the lawyers great experience, but a lot of people ended up pleading guilty because they didn’t have lawyers who specialized in their crime. We don’t have that problem nearly as much anymore, and it’s not unique to us — it’s nationwide. When you don’t have the resources and you’re less educated, you’re less informed about your rights, and you end up pleading guilty just to get out of jail. Or, you just end up staying in jail for years awaiting trial. That’s just the sad reality of poverty, crime, and the over-incarceration of poverty-stricken people.
I get disgusted when we charge the criminally accused outrageous court fines — asking them to foot the bill for the system. Even for many of us who have jobs with a recurring paycheck, we couldn’t afford these fines and fees. I have a paycheck, but if I had to pay the fees we’re levying against many of the defendants standing before me, I’d pass out. It disturbs me. In Alabama, we have minimum charges on drug trafficking offenses. If they plead guilty, they’re going to prison. When they get out, they may be expected to pay $25,000–55,000 dollars. I just do not think that’s right. It’s outrageous to expect they’d be able to pay that fine without going back to crime. Even if they’ve done a bad thing, they pay their debt by going to prison or doing supervised release.
We’re always talking about jobs programs and programs to get folks educated and employed. I’ve presided over a drug court for the last ten years. I’d love to see an employment court or a job/skills court — whereby you’re required to go through this job training and education program if found guilty of certain crimes. The court should be run like any other court: if you don’t comply, the conviction goes on your record. If you do comply, you have a job and an education. If we taught defendants a true skill where they could make money, I think we’d see a turnaround. Nobody talks about that because it’s too lucrative for us to continue collecting fines.
I say all this, and I’m a former prosecutor. I believe in prosecution and I’m on the side of law enforcement, but I also believe in being fair. If we’re going to change the system for the better, we’ve got to take a look at some of the policies we’ve instituted over the years and start thinking about what really strengthens communities.
Judge Shanta Owens was elected to serve the Jefferson County Circuit Court of Birmingham, Alabama, in 2008. She’s now a speaker for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), a nonprofit nonpartisan group of judges, police, and other criminal justice professionals who advance evidence-based public safety solutions.