I’m a correspondent on NPR’s Investigations Unit. In our series, Guilty and Charged, we showed how court fines and fees have become so common that defendants come out of court on felony and even on non-violent misdemeanor cases often owing hundreds or even thousands of dollars. And sometimes, those who don’t pay even go to jail. In my reporting, I cover the span of social issues, and have a particular interest in stories around disability, health, criminal justice, civil rights and poverty.

As Court Fees Rise, The Poor Are Paying The Price: http://www.npr.org/2014/05/19/312158516/increasing-court-fees-punish-the-poor

State-By-State Court Fees: http://www.npr.org/2014/05/19/312455680/state-by-state-court-fees Profiles: http://www.npr.org/2014/05/19/310710716/profiles-of-those-forced-to-pay-or-stay Series Page: http://www.npr.org/series/313986316/guilty-and-charged

Proof: https://twitter.com/nprnews/status/471306176408588288 Proof: https://twitter.com/NPRJoeShapiro/status/472083692752760832

Thanks all for the smart questions. And the love for public radio. Enjoyed it. Good-bye.

Comments: 71 • Responses: 26  • Date: 

CrimsonAutomaton12 karma

Joe, are you looking at the Harpersville case here in Alabama? I'm a resident here, and I'm ashamed that a local municipality would run a debtor's prison like this.

nprjoeshapiro15 karma

I did. Spoke to plaintiffs there. That's coming.

Mewboy10 karma

What are the most expensive charges for minor cases of breaking the laws that most clearly illustrate the lack of proportion between punishment and crime?

nprjoeshapiro13 karma

We found it's typical that one charge can carry costs of hundreds or even thousands of dollars. For a public defender, for example, 43 states plus DC allow charges. Sometimes just a simple administrative fee--that ranges from $10 in NM to up to $400 in Arkansas. But some states will bill you thousands for the public defender--in case you, say, win the lottery tomorrow.

nprjoeshapiro8 karma

Absolutely. Here's a graph from our story: In Washington state, for example, there's 12 percent interest on costs in felony cases that accrues from the moment of judgment until all fines, fees, restitution and interest are paid off in full. As a result, it can be hard for someone who's poor to make that debt ever go away. One state commission found that the average amount in felony cases adds up to $2,500. If someone paid a typical amount — $10 a month — and never missed a payment, his debt would keep growing. After four years of faithful payments, the person would now owe $3,000.

MissSpecified2 karma

Is the interest rate also paired with policies that state that a person's term on probation/parole cannot be completed until the fines are all paid off?

nprjoeshapiro3 karma

Yes, usually that has to be paid off. In Philadelphia, felons can get back their right to vote--but not until they've paid off all those fines and fees. The city in 2011 sent bills on unpaid debts back to the 1970s to more than 320,000 people--roughly 1 in 5 residents. Median debt: $4,500.

Jux_8 karma

Thanks for your work Joe. I spent a few months as a probation officer and was made sick by the endless cycle of probation violations caused by fees. We had people who started off with simple non-violent arrests with 9 months probation turn into a year of straight jail. Offenders with no drug history suddenly selling coke to pay the bills. It was so disheartening. I left because I felt like I wasn't helping anyone and only encouraging the broken cycle.

So my question would be, what's the biggest thing an individual can do to prevent this?

nprjoeshapiro3 karma

Wow. That is depressing. And it shows the perverse disincentives that we saw in the reporting for this series.

The biggest thing an individual can do? Tough question. But I know that advocates suggest a few things that we can do at the state and court level: Stop jailing people for failure to pay criminal justice debt, especially if courts haven't held hearings to determine if the person can pay or not; stop charging for public defenders; lawmakers should end some of these fees; don't add "poverty penalties"--the extra fees on people who can't pay off their court costs right away.

ebagslolz6 karma

To an observer, this sounds like the court system using people as a profit center, which seems counter to the mission of a "justice system". How do people within the justice system square this issue?

nprjoeshapiro6 karma

Some think it's necessary. Others are torn. And say they shouldn't be forced to raise money for courts and states. Justice David Hogg in Michigan called it "tax farming."

Ghost_all6 karma

"investigative journalism" seems to me to be on the decline, with more and more newspapers are getting rid of their reporters or cutting back their newsroom and becoming AP reports repeaters.

Do you see this, and if so, do you think it can be changed?

nprjoeshapiro8 karma

I think investigative journalism is having a rebirth. Newspapers, sadly, as you point out are getting smaller and doing less of this. TV news does less, too. But other places are filling the gap. ProPublica and the Center for Public Integrity have won Pulitzer Prizes for recent investigative reporting. BuzzFeed and other places are taking on investigative reporting in serious ways.

DrDoc5 karma

What can we do to change this? It seems as though this gets people trapped in a never-ending cycle of jail time and debt.

nprjoeshapiro5 karma

That's exactly the concern we raised: a never-ending cycle of jail time and debt. We did a story saying that people go underground: They can't pay, a warrant is issued for their arrest for not paying, they hide from police. But then they can't get public benefits. They have trouble finding a job when the credit check shows up the unpaid fees. In New Jersey, my producer Nicole Beemsterboer and I saw something called Fugitive Safe Surrender. Over 4,500 people, wanted by police, turned themselves in and got fines drastically reduced or wiped out. Eddie Restrepo's $10,000 in court costs (for driving without a license and lots of traffic tickets) was reduced to $199. Now he works for traffic enforcement, giving out parking tickets.


Monterey,Ca had a similar 30 day amnesty for people with misdemeanor traffic violations. Everyone paid $100 to clear their record and the county raked in thousands(maybe hundreds of thousands) of dollars and drivers, like me, could finally relax when a police car was following in our rear-view mirror.

nprjoeshapiro3 karma

Eddie Restrepo told us about living under the threat of an arrest when he couldn't pay his fees: "I was always hiding from the cops. If I was driving, I had to turn left when they were coming right. I was always trying to hide."



nprjoeshapiro9 karma

Wow. I'd like to have enough money not to worry about recurring traffic tickets. (I'd like a Porsche, too.) I think we have to focus, though, on not being so punitive of the poor. And that was one of the conclusions of our series: We end up with a two-tiered system of justice. The rich pay off their fines and are free of the system. The poor, as people here have noted, get caught in a seemingly unending series of debt.

denmargia4 karma

I've been following the series, and had never thought about how much charging fees etc. would impact a person trying to clean up their act and get their life together. Even if someone wants to improve their situation, these fees are setting them up for failure. What do you think (if any) is the alternative to fees?

nprjoeshapiro8 karma

Attorneys told us: Waive more fees, allow more community service. Some state legislators are saying: Let's end some of these fees.

Sammyt12153 karma

Is there any hope of change on the horizon in regards to the heavy court fines, or can we expect this to continue on for the foreseeable future?

nprjoeshapiro3 karma

In just the months that I started this, I've noticed the beginning of change. Successful court challenges in Georgia and Alabama. The new law in Colorado. Instruction from the Ohio Supreme Court to municipal courts not to send people to jail when they're too poor to pay. State legislatures are starting to pay attention. I hope our series will help seed some of this response

Heinz_Doofenshmirtz3 karma

Is the only alternative to court costs raising taxes and using tax revenue to fund the court system? If that is the case, shouldn't we be worried that tax-resistant jurisdictions will see funding for the court system cut so far as to make them virtually useless?

nprjoeshapiro3 karma

You point out the reason why these fees have proliferated. The criminal justice system expanded and there had to be money to pay for it. There's a trend to incarcerate fewer people. That could cause a change. But there'd have to be a significant reduction in arrests to lead to much difference.

MissSpecified2 karma

It seems likely, though, that the trend to incarcerate fewer people could lead to an increase in "community supervision," which still has associated fees and costs. We may see the CJ system spending less on incarceration but more on GPS monitoring, drug testing, probation and parole officers, etc. It would likely still be cheaper than incarcerating someone, but it could have just as many associated costs for the offender.

nprjoeshapiro5 karma

Yes, a good point. And one of the points of our piece is that these alternatives cost a lot of money--that get passed on to the offender. On Saturday evening, I did a story about electronic monitoring. And Tom Barrett in Georgia who stole a can of beer, worth less than $2. The sentence: 12 months probation, including wearing an ankle bracelet that could tell if he'd been drinking. But that cost over $400 a month. He'd been homeless. His only income: food stamps and the 30 bucks he got when he sold his plasma. He couldn't pay for the monitor. So he went to jail.

greenwright133 karma

Joe, I found the series interesting and eye opening and I appreciate that you and NPR took the time to bring these issues to light. One of the things that kept coming to my mind was that it seems that we are essentially creating debtor's prisons. There is very little focus on rehabilitation; instead it sometimes feels as though the only point of punishment is simply to perpetuate the "justice" system and create jobs for those employed in the judicial and criminal justice systems. I'm curious as to what kinds of attitudes you experienced during your investigation from those who support these kinds of fines and fees and if there was any kind of stonewalling from the judicial or criminal justice system in response to your investigation. Thanks again. :)

nprjoeshapiro1 karma

Sometimes I came away thinking that judges and the people before them just saw the world through different lenses. Judges felt fines and fees should be paid first. They'd ask someone if they smoke, or have cell phone service. And if so, maybe they should use the money instead to pay those fines and fees. Defendants would say, I've got to pay money for rent, or food for my family. But sometimes poor people simply would ignore what they owed. And judges say there needs to be respect for law, even on minor violations. Other judges said: We need to punish people and we can take your money or your time. And they note: Fines are an alternative to going to jail, so you're better off getting a fine than a jail sentence.

bookishgeek2 karma

Hi, Joe. It's an honor to speak to you, I've actually recently picked up listening to this program!

I know there's a lot of discussion about gender disparity in so many fields all across the world, but particularly in America.

How do you think gender disparity affects people being placed into custody? Do you think being female makes it any harder or easier to avoid going back to jail, or is this a field where gender is just about equal?

(not in representation - I know there are fewer women incarcerated overall, I mean strictly in a "arrested and more likely to be/not be incarcerated" sense).

Thank you!

~ Patricia

nprjoeshapiro8 karma

One place I've seen gender disparity: Mothers go to jail and they worry about who is going to take care of their children. It's a big burden on families and the system isn't set up to handle it well.

MissSpecified2 karma

In the course of your investigation, did you find that most of the fees went to court administration costs, or to contracted third parties (i.e., GPS monitoring services run by for-profit companies)? Do you see a relationship between these required fees and payments and the privatization of the corrections industry?

nprjoeshapiro3 karma

It depends upon the jurisdiction. In Georgia, courts contract with private probation companies to manage the big job of supervising probation and collecting fees. But there the private company then charges a supervision fee and gets money. Largely, though, these are mandated by states and counties and the money goes back to governments.

MissSpecified2 karma

Welcome! Thanks for doing this AMA.

I haven't checked out your series yet (though I'm looking forward to doing so), so my apologies if you have already addressed this topic: Does your series explore the way that gender may shape peoples' experiences with managing the financial costs of involvement with the criminal justice system? I have been involved in some research on women offenders, and they often face very different and gendered difficulties. For example, many of them are responsible for minor children, so they face the added expense of finding childcare during the times they must report to their POs. The added expenses for their children can delay women's payment of the court fines and fees, which could keep them on probation/parole for longer periods of time. Did you encounter any of this stuff in your investigations?

nprjoeshapiro3 karma

That's an important point. I didn't address that directly. I noted to another question today that I found many women in the situation you describe--mothers who go to jail when they don't pay their fines and fees. One mother--Kim Nash in Michigan--said she had a choice: She could pay what she owed to the court, or pay the rent and keep her children from becoming homeless.

purdueable1 karma


Huge fan of NPR and your guilty and charged series. Is there anyway on the pledge drives you can tone it down after I donate money!? I want my NPR fix on the way to work!

2nd question: What got you into investigative journalism?

nprjoeshapiro7 karma

Sorry, I don't have much say here on the pledge drives. (But please donate to your local stations, I say in a toned-down way.)

I appreciate the chance to do these investigations, to do things that might change the way we understand the world--which can then lead to change. So I joined the new Investigative Unit here in 2010 to do those stories. I've always wanted to do stories that had depth--and where I had time to really think about an issue.

NorbitGorbit1 karma

if you refuse court appointed attorney, are there still fees in place?

nprjoeshapiro4 karma

Absolutely. And here's the absurdity: Sometimes people refuse the court-appointed attorney because they know there's a fee involved. Tom Barrett, who went to jail after he stole a can of beer, turned down the public defender who could have helped him. There was a $50 application fee just to get the public defender. Tom had no money. He couldn't pay the court fees, so he went to jail.

curtis76761 karma

Family court is even worse...in your experience would you say the court system in the US exists mainly to benefit lawyers/judges who can actually serve in both capacities at any given time?

nprjoeshapiro1 karma

I didn't look at family court. Although I know there are cases where parents have ended up paying the fines of minor children.

curtis7676-1 karma

you didnt answer my question...

nprjoeshapiro2 karma

I think the lawyers and judges I met are dedicated. They want to serve justice and help people. Many have regrets about the system, and the way they see court debt pile up on poor people.

Nephilii1 karma


nprjoeshapiro3 karma

In Michigan and Washington, for example, groups of lawmakers and judges are meeting in June to consider solutions: Limiting fees, ending the interest rate on fees (12 percent on felony fines, fees and restitution in Washington State, where the average court cost on felonies is $2,500), finding alternative ways to pay off fees, limiting the practice of sending people to jail when they don't pay. Colorado just enacted legislation telling city courts to stop sending people to jail when they can't pay fees.

Ingenium210 karma

On to a more serious question.

coupling this news article with the one that was released recently about Google's demographics. If you haven't read the article, here it is (spoiler alert, mostly white, mostly male)


Would it be fair to say that the system is rigged against minorities?

nprjoeshapiro1 karma

I'll read it. Not sure I have the expertise, though, to answer. Thanks.

AddemF0 karma

First (rhetorical) question, how is it that NPR is the unique national American general news organization to do high-quality reporting?

Second, what is the most worst aspect of this for our culture? My girlfriend is of the opinion that society should share in the protection of our citizens, even when they've done some amount of wrong. However, she leans more left than I do in this regard; but my concern is that it is not just to have a system that allows any part of our society to avoid punishment, or receive an astronomically different sort of punishment than the kind administered to another portion of our society.

nprjoeshapiro2 karma

Thanks. It's one reason I value the job I have.

Worst aspect for our culture: When people are crushed by the burden of debt and jail, we separate people from their families and communities. We weaken community.

I interviewed Louisiana State Senator Danny Martiny. He's the Republican leader in the state senate. And he made your girlfriend's point: We've got to do more to fund public defenders, he said. Because "if you don't hire competent attorneys to represent these people, you may save money the first time but when the defendant goes up and argues that he had incompetent counsel and the case has to be retried, or he's released from jail, that's the risk that you run."

And my favorite point from Martiny: On why it's hard to get lawmakers to fund public defenders: "When people run for office, they usually ask their DA to get in the picture with them. They don't ask for the public defender."

Ingenium21-3 karma

Garrison Keilor.

That's not his real voice, right?



nprjoeshapiro9 karma

100 duck-sized Garrison Keilors, because that's a Garrison Keilor below average