In Augusta, Ga., a judge sentenced Tom Barrett to 12 months after he stole a can of beer worth less than $2. In Ionia, Mich., 19-year-old Kyle Dewitt caught a fish out of season; then a judge sentenced him to three days in jail. In Grand Rapids, Mich., Stephen Papa, a homeless Iraq War veteran, spent 22 days in jail, not for what he calls his “embarrassing behavior” after he got drunk with friends and climbed into an abandoned building, but because he had only $25 the day he went to court.
The common thread in these cases, and scores more like them, is the jail time wasn’t punishment for the crime, but for the failure to pay the increasing fines and fees associated with the criminal justice system.
A yearlong NPR investigation found that the costs of the criminal justice system in the United States are paid increasingly by the defendants and offenders. It’s a practice that causes the poor to face harsher treatment than others who commit identical crimes and can afford to pay. Some judges and politicians fear the trend has gone too far.
This is humiliating and a waste of tax-payer dollars. The fact that we still send people to prison over petty court fees is absolutely ridiculous. There needs to be a better way.