The Price of Avoiding Incarceration

In my previous posts, I have discussed the general stages of the justice system, the fines and fees associated with the pretrial stage as well as the fines and fees associated with being in custody. To complete the discussion regarding the fines and fees associated with the life cycle of a criminal defendant’s journey through the justice system, I will be focusing on how money affects a person once they have been sentenced and are eligible for diversion programs. This post will illustrate how money is typically a factor in determining whether a person serves their punishment in out-of-custody diversion programs and the ramifications that this practice has.

Alternative sentencing is the general umbrella term that is used for different avenues of punishment rather than incarceration. The goal of alternative sentencing is to identify and use effective sanctions that address an offender’s underlying problem in efforts to advance public safety and the chances of reoffending. Alternative sentencing is similar to deferred entry of judgment pursuant to California Penal Code sections 1000.-1000.6. Deferred entry of judgment for adults is a special drug and alcohol education program that; offenders who commit certain drug crimes can have their charges dismissed upon completion of the program.

Santa Clara County frequently utilizes both the Sentencing Alternative Program, Inc. and the Sheriff Weekend Work Program when allowing individuals to serve alternative sentences in lieu of jail time. Both programs highlight that the programs benefit the community, the offender, and the state since the offenders pay to participate. Programs like these can be incredibly beneficial for an offender since they allow time to be served on the weekends or nights, allowing the participants the ability to keep their jobs, homes, and maintain family ties. However, these benefits come at cost. For example, the Sentencing Alternative Program charges, along with various miscellaneous fees, a sliding fee ranging from $35-$250 based on the number of hours an offender is assigned to complete. The cost to participate in the Sherriff’s Work Program is not publically available, however, their site does relay that the program incurs no cost to Santa Clara Citizens or the Department of Corrections as participants pay a fee.

The imposition of these fees puts indigent and poor defendants at a disadvantage: even if they are eligible for the program on the basis of their sentences, they will not be able to participate because of inability to pay. This disadvantage does not fall solely on those who have no money, but also those who are struggling to feed, clothe, and house themselves (and their families) while working multiple jobs. The inability to serve alternate sentences can have detrimental effects on these populations as jail time would likely cause them to lose their jobs and create difficulty securing employment upon release.

These alternate sentencing programs help offenders avoid jail and prison time, allowing them to escape the very system that some argue creates more crime. They can also be beneficial for the community, public safety, reducing recidivism and even the fiscal budget. However, these benefits should be tangible for all those eligible, regardless of a person’s ability to pay. Otherwise, our system is effectively handing out harsher punishments for those who are poor.

Policy

The nation’s current criminal justice system is punishing poor and low-income individuals at a disproportionate rate. Not only are people being thrown into jails and prisons because they cannot afford to pay various fines and fees, but these same people are facing a much harsher time in custody than their affluent counterparts.

There have been numerous studies to show that there is a correlation between the time an individual spends in custody and the likelihood that he will commit another crime. Imprisoning people based on a failure to pay and racking up fines and fees against them while they are in custody is not benefiting society in any way: incarceration is costly and the tremendous debt that people are incurring is almost never repaid. Moving to an individualized punishment system similar to Finland, where fines and fees are assessed based on ability to pay and income, would not only help save taxpayers’ money, but it would be a system that actually treats individuals fairly.

 

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