America: The Land of The Free or The Land of Buying Your Freedom?

The criminal justice system in America is broken and has become a vehicle for collecting money from its passengers. Imagine getting arrested and brought into your local jail. What is the first thing that comes to your mind? Mine would be “what do I have to do to get out of here?” Well, the answer to that question is simpler than you probably would have imagined: money.

Most people only associate money bail with the adverse effects that wealth can play when determining whether someone has the ability to stay out of custody. Money bail is only part of the issue, however. Wealth is a catalyst for many injustices across the nation including the criminal justice system. Impoverished criminal defendants are not afforded the same opportunities as their wealthy counterparts merely because they do not have the monetary means. A poor criminal defendant will face many disadvantages throughout the criminal justice system for the sole reason of being poor. Over the next few posts I will discuss some of these disadvantages.

There are a few different ways to be released from custody, depending on what stage of the criminal process you are in: pre-trial, post-conviction, and post-sentence.

In the pre-trial stage, which extends from the moment you have been cited or arrested and booked, through bail hearings and arraignments, to the moment a criminal trial has begun, you are eligible to be released in three ways. The first and most well-known is money bail, the process where you pay a fee in order to be released. The second is release on your own recognizance, without supervision (O.R.) which involves a promise to come back to court and agreement to other various conditions (this includes cite and release). The third is release on your own recognizance with supervision (S.O.R.), where you agree to those same conditions (and more likely others) but the main difference is that those who are released on S.O.R. must check in with pretrial services for drug tests, alcohol tests, and the like.

In the post-trial or post-conviction stage of the criminal process, you may have the opportunity to be released from custody or avoid it all together. This takes form in some of the following ways: you can be put on court probation, which is similar to O.R. in that you agree to abide to terms and conditions, but you do so for a set amount of time; you can also be put on supervised court probation, which is essentially probation with the caveat of reporting to a probation officer every so often (think S.O.R. at a different stage of the process); you can be eligible for various alternative sentencing programs which include drug and alcohol treatment facilities, halfway houses, and city or county work programs where you work off your sentence; or you can pay a fine and be released. Should you be ineligible for any and all of these alternatives, you’ll be looking at life from a new perspective: behind bars.

If you do end up in custody, upon your release you may have to serve time on PRCS, which is similar to S.O.R. and supervised probation, but given a different name because of the point in the process in which it occurs.

So what do all of these things have in common? Money. Aside from the obvious ‘money bail’, each of these avenues in the criminal justice system costs money. For example, pre-sentence reports cost money: without them, you can’t get probation. Drug tests cost money: without them, you can’t get alternative sentencing. Classes cost money: without them, you might be unable to fulfill your terms of release. That doesn’t even mention the costs of renting electronic bracelets for home detention. These various costs all fall under the term “Legal Financial Obligations” or LFOs, a term coined by Wayne A. Logan and Ronald F. Wright in their article Mercenary Criminal Justice. If you consider all the different ways a criminal defendant can be charged monetarily, it’s difficult not to wonder about the disparate impact these LFOs have on impoverished and indigent defendants.

Well, so what, right? You do the crime, you do the time, or in this case, you do the crime, you pay the fine. The problem is that this system of ‘justice’ has created a means of punishing the poor much more harshly than the middle and upper classes.

Over the next few posts, I will be discussing specifically the different fines and fees that are imposed on defendants at different stages of the criminal justice process in California and what some of the implications are from those fines and fees. I will begin by discussing the pre-trial stage and how money is the primary proxy for being released from custody. Money bail is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to wealth being a factor for who stays in and who gets out. If we are to really look at the ways in which poor people are affected, we must extend our investigation to LFOs.

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