Poverty is not a crime, yet in California the justice system punishes the poor just for being poor. Court-ordered fines and fees that are imposed without consideration of ability to pay trap poor people in a vicious cycle of police stops, incarceration, judicial debt and license suspension. As the founder of Homeboy Industries, I see firsthand how the justice system’s wanton disregard for the poor impedes the progress of the men and women we work with.
Homeboys and homegirls tell me of the excitement and pride they feel at getting a job and earning honest money. A homie once showed me his first earnings and said, “Damn, G, this paycheck makes me feel proper!” But those feelings can be dampened when they see how their wages must be spent on or are garnished for court fines and fees. Most of these men and women are earning minimum wage or less, and losing this income means making impossible choices between putting food on the table, paying monthly bills or paying rent. For some, payment is simply not possible.
For those who are unable to pay, court debt may be sent to a collections agency, which charges additional fees. Other consequences include license suspension, barriers to the expunging process and jail time for license suspension violations.
Both the United States and the California constitutions prohibit punishing persons for their poverty, and in circumstances like these, they forbid imposing fines and fees without taking into account defendants’ inability to pay. Nonetheless, municipalities and counties throughout California have long used revenues from court fees to supplement their budgets. Under this system, a minor traffic citation can turn into a major expense after one has to pay court operations fees, court security fees, court facilities fees, and the like. Of course, such revenue mechanisms fall disproportionately on the backs of those with the least ability to pay.
The fundamental unfairness of imposing court fees on poor people is why Homeboy Industries recently joined more than 20 other organizations in signing onto an amicus brief that will soon be filed by the East Bay Community Law Center, in support of an appeal by an indigent woman who is challenging mandatory court fees imposed on poor defendants without consideration of their ability to pay. If the lawsuit is successful, it will end this practice throughout California.
The defendant in this case is Velia Dueñas, represented by the nonprofit law firm Public Counsel, and her case is typical of many people in our communities. She is a homeless, Latina young mother of two children who suffers from cerebral palsy. She was sentenced to 30 days in county jail and fined $300 for a misdemeanor conviction of driving with a suspended license, which was only suspended because of unpaid court debt. She served an additional nine days in jail because she could not afford to pay the $300 fine. Despite having served her time, the judge refused to take her indigence into account and, like a scene from a Dickens novel, assessed an additional $220 in court fees and restitution.
Public safety is not the issue here; Velia Dueñas knows how to drive. Nor is respect for the law; she has tried to pay her court debts in the past. Her case is a prime example of the criminalization of poverty.
Beyond the legal issues, though, lies the more fundamental, moral question: Where is the “justice” in our criminal justice system? Velia Dueñas was jailed and separated from her children because of her inability to pay court fines and fees. Will more and more of the poor be similarly jailed, like a return to the debtors’ prisons of old, or be forced to endure wage garnishment, harsh debt collection practices, and the other debilitating personal consequences of court debt? The integrity of one of our most important civic institutions, the judicial system, is surely at risk when we further marginalize those already living on the margins by criminalizing their economic status, and compound their suffering with court debt.
I heard someone say once, “Just assume the answer to every question is compassion.” Indeed. Sacrificing compassion under the guise of budget balancing is ineffective and, more importantly, beneath us.
People like Velia Dueñas face gut-wrenching legal, financial, familial and social stresses when the long arm of the judicial system seeks payment of its coin.
The only true answer is a compassion that stands in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than in judgment at how they carry it.
Jesuit Father Gregory J. Boyle is the founder of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, the largest gang intervention, rehabilitation and re-entry program in the world. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.