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More Victims and Less Justice: The Cash Cow Criminal Justice Reality

June 30, 2020 0 comments

#CriminalJusticeReform is a local issue, affected by elected Governors, Attorney Generals, State Legislators, County Board of Supervisors, County Attorneys, County Sheriffs, and City Councils.

Under Arizona’s civil asset forfeiture laws, police and other law enforcement entities have the authority to seize private property from citizens—their cars, their cash, their homes—without the property owner ever being convicted of a crime.

To make matters worse, even if a person is found innocent, they still rarely ever recover their property.

A relic of the 1970s, states passed laws emulating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, which began as a well-intentioned measure to battle large crime families has devolved into a cash cow for law enforcement entities looking to supplement their budgets, usually at the expense of low-income individuals—and it almost never has anything to do with organized crime. 

Since property is taken through a civil procedure instead of a criminal case, the burden is much simpler for the government to meet in order to relieve citizens of their property. 

In fact, roughly 60% of cash forfeitures in Arizona are for less than $1,000, and the majority of those happened without a criminal conviction. 

Particularly concerning is the fact that the cost of the court cases alone often exceeds the value of the property being seized, creating a huge disincentive for citizens to challenge such takings.

Coupled with the fact that in most forfeiture cases the property owner is unable to afford an attorney, the inevitable result is a system rife with abuse, which is precisely what is happening in Arizona.

State and local courts also assess excessive criminal justice fines, fees, costs, and surcharges, accompanied by draconian collection tactics. 

In at least 45 jurisdictions, individuals may be incarcerated for nonpayment of a criminal justice debt, such as where payment of the debt is a condition of a suspended sentence or of probation, so that non-payment leads to incarceration.

In many states, non-payment can also lead to suspension of driver’s or professional licenses, restrictions on expungement of criminal records, and denial of the right to vote. 

Debtors may also face garnishment of their wages or benefits, seizure of their tax refunds or other assets, aggressive or problematic interactions with debt collection agencies, and credit reporting consequences.

Excessive assessment of criminal justice debt and punitive collection methods often can be explained by a jurisdiction’s eagerness to use criminal justice fines and fees as a source of government revenue – this is particularly true in states and counties that tout “keeping taxes low.” #TaxingThePoor

This quest for revenue results in charges to the defendant for court-appointed criminal defense attorneys, costs for incarceration, surcharges on existing fines, and various other fees piled upon criminal defendants. 

Interest, late penalties, collection costs, and other charges may balloon the debt further into many thousands of dollars so that it is unaffordable for many lower-income individuals, especially those already facing employment and housing barriers related to their criminal record. 

Courts and local and state governments are not the only entities profiting from criminal justice fines and fees. 

A vast network of private companies—including commercial bail agents, telecommunications providers, technology companies, commissary operators, and money transmitters—pile on unfair charges for those arrested or incarcerated. 

This price gouging not only harms those who have been arrested and incarcerated, but also their families, loved ones, and broader communities.

Those who cannot afford bail must turn to commercial bail agents, which are generally backed by large insurance companies. 

These individuals must pay the bail agent a non-refundable premium, typically in the range of 10% of the bail amount. 

Who knew insurance companies have expanded into the bail bonds business?

Even in cases of false arrest, where charges are dropped, or where the individual facing charges is found not guilty, the accused person does not get their money back. 

Families who are not able to pay even the 10% of the bail amount sign on to abusive credit contracts, resulting in undisclosed or illegal fees, excessive rates of interest, and harassing collection practices, including false threats to send accused persons back to jail. 

Bail agents may force bail bond cosigners to turn over property pledged as collateral even where the accused complies with the terms of bail.

Prisons have given a handful of conglomerates—mostly owned by private equity firms—monopoly rights allowing them often to charge those incarcerated with unconscionably exorbitant rates for telephone calls, video calls, electronic messaging, money transfer services, commissary services, and a host of other services. 

Individuals may come out of jail or prison with significantly higher debt than they had at sentencing and no realistic way to pay for it.

The main victims of this price gouging typically are the families and the loved ones of those incarcerated.

The debate over the use of private prisons entered a new chapter last week with a federal lawsuit claiming the facilities are unconstitutional on multiple grounds – including a violation of the state Constitution’s prohibition against slavery. 

Plaintiffs say the incentive structure is offensive and results in more people incarcerated for longer – because the companies and their shareholders want beds filled, and it’s the companies that decide which inmates have broken rules … which can extend their incarcerations.

Plaintiff #NAACP adds that the state-company contracts guarantee “minimum occupancy,” which they say offends the conscience and the law.

There are almost 8,000 inmates in private facilities in Arizona.

The most important goal of our corrections system is public safety, and to achieve that, our system must work to rehabilitate people and treat the root causes of crime. #SecondChancesAZ

We need to elect State Legislators, County Board of Supervisors, County Attorneys, County Sheriffs, and City Councils committed to justice in all our systems to achieve #CriminalJusticeReform.

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