How Much Does It Really Cost to Fine and Jail the Indigent?

Though some cities profit from collecting fines, costs to government resources and taxpayers prove hefty
February 9, 2015 Updated: October 8, 2018

Ferguson, Mo., is making money from jailing the poor.

On Sunday, civil rights attorneys filed class-action lawsuits against the cities of Ferguson and Jennings, Mo., for jailing indigent defendants when they cannot afford to pay their traffic tickets and other fines for minor offenses, violating their constitutional rights. The lawsuits allege that many such defendants are placed in jail without the courts making inquiries into their financial situation or appointing a lawyer to represent them during hearings.

In Ferguson, after an individual has been jailed, the court system will gradually reduce the amount the individual owes, in an attempt to collect as much money as possible, according to the court complaint filed at a federal court in Missouri.

But the longer the person stays in jail, the more it costs in taxpayer dollars to fund the person’s incarceration. When the individual’s family and friends still cannot come up with the money, the city will then release the person.

“The basic scheme of the City of Ferguson is to extort—through the threat of physical confinement—money from debtors who are otherwise unable to afford to pay both the basic necessities of life and their debts to the City,” according to the court complaint.

Fines and court fees were the second largest source of revenue for the city, a total of $2,635,400, according to a 2014 report by ArchCity Defenders. They are a public defender organization in Missouri that is among the group of attorneys filing the lawsuits on behalf of residents. They allege that the residents were charged additional fees after serving their jail sentences and failing to make payments on their initial fines—thus caught in a cycle of debt and incarceration.

The group estimated that given the average conviction rate of 80 percent in Missouri’s municipal courts, the average fine for a guilty case is $275.

But processing these court cases is also a hefty use of city resources. Each hour of a court session costs the city of Ferguson approximately $2,950.

ArchCity also calculated that for every Ferguson police officer who is taken off his patrol beat to perform court duty, an extra burden of protecting 2,650 residents falls on the rest of the police force.

In other municipalities, the costs of incarcerating the indigent often outweigh the fines the defendants are owed.

According to a 2010 report by the New York University Brennan Center for Justice, in 2009, 564 individuals in Mecklenburg County, N.C., were arrested because they fell behind on debt or failed to provide the county with updated address information. Among them, 246 people did not pay and were held in jail for an average of about four days—costing taxpayers more than $40,000, though the county only collected $33,476 from the individuals who were arrested.

A Supreme Court ruling in 1983, Bearden v. Georgia, prohibited judges from imprisoning defendants if they were too poor to pay their court fines, and required judges to consider the defendant’s ability to pay when deciding their sentence. The Constitution’s Eighth Amendment also prohibits excessive fines and bail.

But a 2010 investigation by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found that modern-day “debtors’ prisons” was a common phenomenon throughout the country. In Louisiana, a homeless construction worker accrued $498 in fines and costs when he was convicted of marijuana possession. After failing to make his payments, he spent five months in jail, at a cost of more than $3,000 to the city of New Orleans.

Likewise, in Ohio, the cost of jail incarceration is about $70 per day. One defendant who owed about $2,800 in fines spent 330 days in jail. That means taxpayers ended up paying about $23,100 for his incarceration, eight times his original fine, according to the ACLU’s calculations.

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