If you make Denver County’s median household income (about $49,000) and get hit with a traffic ticket or court fees for a misdemeanor, you could likely resolve the issue without significant financial suffering. You might not be happy about paying fines and other costs, but you probably wouldn’t have to worry about not being able to provide for your family anymore or being at risk of losing the roof over your head. For those defendants who live below the poverty line, it’s a different story.
According to the most recent census data, almost 19% of the population of Denver County lived below the poverty line from 2008 to 2012. These are the people who are most disproportionately affected by penalties for petty crimes, simply because they can’t afford fines, court costs, and other long-term consequences of being charged or convicted of a crime.
Fees Keep Mounting for Impoverished Defendants
To get a sense of how impoverished Americans are negatively affected by our court system, let’s look at a relatively minor infraction: running a red light. In Colorado, the fine for running a red light is $40 in a residential area, and it goes up to $80 for school or work zones. That might not sound like a huge fine, but it’s potentially more than someone with a minimum wage job would make in the course of a workday. If someone is unable to pay this fine in a set amount of time, he or she will then face an additional $29 fine and will have to appear before a judge. Once a court date is scheduled, the offender will also have to pay court costs, including a personal service fee. If none of these costs are covered by this point, the judge might establish a repayment plan, but the defendant would most likely have to pay interest, which would cause the amount owed to further increase.
And that’s just the beginning. Let’s say that someone who lives below the poverty line was charged with a misdemeanor, such as public indecency for urinating in an alley. According to in-depth research by NPR, that person could face a number of fees even if they weren’t convicted, including:
• Jail fee (for pretrial incarceration)
• Application fee for public defender
• Jury fees (if a 6- or 12-person jury is required)
• Rental fee for electronic monitoring device
If they were sentenced for a misdemeanor, costs could include:
• Fees for court administrative costs
• Public defender reimbursement fees
• Prosecutor reimbursement fees
Suspended Licenses and Criminal Background Checks
The mounting costs for a petty crime aren’t the only harsh consequences that impoverished individuals face if convicted. If their conviction is related to a driving offense, or even if they aren’t convicted but can’t pay for a traffic violation, they may have their license suspended. For many people living below the poverty line, driving is necessary for getting to work, picking up kids from school, going to the doctor, or meeting other daily responsibilities. Many people will not be able to afford to miss work and will continue driving with a suspended license—which can result in jail time if they’re caught.
Those who are convicted of a crime, even a misdemeanor, will also have to worry about that conviction showing up whenever they need a criminal background check. This can make it difficult for them to find a job or even to receive government assistance, such as food stamps and subsidized housing. For anyone living in poverty, a criminal conviction can make it incredibly difficult to eke out a living.
Pay-or-Serve Overturned in Colorado, but System Has Long Way to Go
There have been some recent changes that suggest lawmakers are beginning to recognize the problems with our court system. This May, Colorado governor John Hickenlooper signed a law making it illegal for judges to use a “pay-or-serve” system where defendants who were too poor to pay court fees and fines were sent to jail. This law came about after the ACLU publicly accused three Colorado cities—Westminster, Wheat Ridge, and North Glenn—of illegally jailing people who could not afford to pay court-ordered fines.
This change is an optimistic start, and recent reports on poverty and crime such as the one released by NPR have been doing a lot to raise awareness of this issue. However, we need to continue drawing attention to the many problems that plague our court system and advocate for new laws that will hopefully shift the burden of court fees off of defendants who are too poor to pay.
About the Author:
Kimberly Diego is a criminal defense attorney in Denver practicing at The Law Office of Kimberly Diego. She obtained her undergraduate degree from Georgetown University and her law degree at the University of Colorado. She was named one of Super Lawyers’ “Rising Stars of 2012” and “Top 100 Trial Lawyers in Colorado” for 2012 and 2013 by The National Trial Lawyers. Both honors are limited to a small percentage of practicing attorneys in each state. She has also been recognized for her work in domestic violence cases.