My theory is that the criminal legal system functions primarily as a method of social control over the lower class. This much is obvious and barely worth mentioning. I think a second, somewhat more pernicious function is that it forces the people caught up in it in direct debt peonage through the levying of fines, costs, and fees as a direct result of punishment. Further, it creates a vast pool of low-cost, low-skill labor that capital is free to exploit at will. A criminal conviction on one's record drops one's bargaining power to zero, as if for a single worker they have any to begin with. Fast food restaurants, construction sites, and call centers are just a few places you will find stuffed with people who have been processed by the criminal legal system. Moreso, I believe that this is the intended consequence, not something incidental. Not that any judges or prosecutors will admit this, or even be aware of it on a conscious level.
This is not an exhaustive report and is based largely on personal anecdotal experience. As I've mentioned before many times on here, I am a public defender – that's a “free” criminal defense attorney appointed to the poor, for anyone unfamiliar with the term or concept. I represent criminal defendants too poor to afford a lawyer, although the cutoff is distressingly low, which leaves a big chunk of the working poor and lower-middle class who can't afford an attorney and don't get court-appointed counsel either. But that's a whole nother issue.
Last time anyone bothered to check (2000, or so it seems), roughly 82% of felony defendants in large counties are represented by court-appointed counsel (it looks like the Bureau of Justice Statistics doesn't keep track of state-level misdemeanors. In some states, they game it so low-level misdemeanors don't qualify, so it's hard to say what the numbers would be anyway). This is usually, but not entirely, due to their indigence – in my state, if you are incarcerated pretrial you qualify for court-appointed counsel no matter what. This is a high amount, but not shockingly so if you are of the belief that the criminal legal system is largely designed to control the lowest classes. It makes sense that they are generally the ones charged with and prosecuted for crimes. Federal crimes are a different story, as they tend to be larger-scale and often white collar.
This is also not a post about the issue with the court-appointed counsel system as it currently exists. Needless to say, it's fucked. Again, not surprising, because it's largely lip service to the constitution and basic fairness: sure, we shouldn't be making people with little to no education – and very often severe mental health issues – try to understand the complex vagaries of the criminal legal system while their liberty is at stake. Let's give them an over-worked, underpaid recent law school graduate to meet with them for ten minutes to explain how they're fucked. It will keep the trial courts running smoothly and clear up the appeals docket a bit. Rather, it's about the overlooked impact that even a simple criminal conviction can have on a person and how it steers them to a life of permanent proletarian-hood.
One overt way that poor people are attacked financially is with the burden of court costs. While court systems receive funding from state coffers, someone somewhere (it was actually in the 1970s, I believe) decided that the costs of prosecution and processing should be borne by the criminals themselves. So now, even something as simple as a low-level misdemeanor, such as harassment or disorderly conduct, comes with a litany of court costs – administrative processing fees, costs of prosecution (like paying several hundred dollars to the cops for a blood test during a DUI stop or $1,000+ for transportation if a client has to be extradited from out of state), and even, bizarrely enough, money for your “free” lawyer (unless the case is dismissed or results in an acquittal, my clients pay $25 for my services. Not to me of course). These usually add up to several hundred dollars and are higher the more severe the charge. Not exactly death by a thousand cuts, but a substantial amount to someone living on $800 a month in benefits.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. This is all after a finding of guilt, either through plea (very likely) or jury verdict (also very likely). At the very beginnings, most cases start with arrest and that brings us to the initial method of extracting money from the poor: the cash bail system. Some idiot decided that in order to get people to come to court, we should take a chunk of change from them and hold it until their case is resolved. It's capitalism, right? The only conceivable motivation for an individual is financial. The amount can range anywhere from a few dozen dollars to several thousand (to be fair, I will note that many people are released for free “on their own recognizance”, with only a threat of re-incarceration and a potential fine if they miss court). Someone posting a cash bond gets the money back when the case is resolved, although courts often deduct the court costs from the bond. Regardless, having several hundred dollars tied up (and not collecting interest) is a huge burden for many of my clients and, more often, their friends and families (if they're lucky enough to have any).
Now, on it's face this is preposterous and incredibly classist, so someone even more idiotic created the bail bonds system to address it. That's when a licensed, bonded individual or company will take a percentage of the total cost from the client or an interested party – usually about 10% - and foot the remainder of the bill. Because they are taking on the burden of assuring a client's appearance at future court appearances, they take steps to make them show. This is where bounty hunters come in. With quasi-legal authority, they will find clients and drag them in on warrants issued if they failed to appear at a court hearing. Usually they just wait for them to get arrested on warrants. In my experience, bail bondspeople are (predictably) absolute scum. Preying off of the most vulnerable, their main job is “having a big pile of money or line of credit, signing papers with the court, and waiting for cops to arrest people that they bonded out so they can get their money back.” Sure, a $1,000 bond only nets them $100 from my client, but that adds up for a poor person. Every missed court date results in another bond, usually increasing with each iteration. It's not rare to have a client held on a $10,000 bond for a misdemeanor because they showed up a few hours late to court, or not at all.
One thing I should have noted earlier: the county jail has a “processing” fee of $35 upon arrest. Yes, you pay for the privilege of being tossed in a concrete box that you can't leave. Even if you're found innocent or the case is quickly dismissed, this has to be paid. If not paid up front, t's deducted from any money placed on a client's books, which include everything from phone calls to commissary (eating anything that's not basically poison). This leads to a side-issue: the cost of jail “visits”. It's of course contracted out to a private company that charges exorbitant fees. That is, if the electronic system even works. This can be done from home using a skype-like system, or in the jail with a skype-like system. No face-to-face visits or through plexiglass windows. But I digress.
Once the scum-suckers bond a client out, more often than not the client will be subjected to pretrial supervision. This can include weekly or monthly check-ins, urinalysis or breath tests, electronic home monitoring, or various other conditions. Think being on probation, except before you copped a plea or lost a trial. The legality of this simply baffles me, considering the presumption of innocence that virtually everyone knows about and is a supposed bedrock of the criminal legal system. Years ago, this was a public system provided by the courts but it has since been contracted out to various companies, providing another remora lazily hoovering up the scraps of a corrupt system. Of course, because it's a private company, there are costs associated with it. Again nothing exorbitant, but a client can expect to pay $15 to $30 (occasionally more) a month to enjoy the privilege of not spending several months in jail before admitting to or being convicted of a crime. I am assured that clients will never have their bonds revoked for nonpayment, but simple insignificant infractions can be grounds for revocation if brought to the judge's attention. I have noticed that they practice wide discretion on reporting said infractions. If found noncompliant a person is returned to the county jail with the right to a hearing to contest the revocation within 14 days.
Everyone knows the dangers of pretrial incarceration. It results in a much higher rate of guilty pleas for reasons too obvious to go into. Fundamentally, being in jail means not working or making any money, and usually the loss of one's job and often one's benefits. But even folks out of custody can watch the costs add up as their cases creep along. Speedy trial rights usually mean that you have to have a trial within six months of requesting one. A failure to appear at a court appearance can function as a de facto waiver of that right, starting the clock over. As MLK said, justice delayed is justice denied. It also winds up hitting the wallet pretty hard.
And then, for the vast majority who find themselves guilty, there are the above court costs. But for the folks lucky enough to be granted a probationary sentence, there are supervision costs. That comes to $50 a month in my county. For a 12 month sentence, that's $600. That's a short sentence. Most clients will end up being billed for more than a thousand dollars so they can meet with a bored civil servant once a month and piss in a cup. Except, of course, they often have to pay for their piss tests at $10-$15 a pop. Paying court costs is also a standard condition of probation. Although it is admittedly rate, you can have your probation revoked for non-payment of costs or restitution.
Restitution is another cost, although easier to defend. Essentially, if a victim is out any money – whether because something was stolen or broken in the commission of a crime – then restitution will become part of the sentence. This includes payments to insurance companies if they end up compensating the victim financially, like in the case of a DUI involving a car accident. The amounts can range from a small amount for a petty theft the several thousand dollars. And you bet that interest accrues on the initial amount, even if the client is incarcerated or otherwise unable to pay.
Folks who get a jail sentence can on occasion may be lucky enough to be afforded another option: in-home detention. This costs between $11 and $15 a day. Because this is such a great deal for them, prosecutors and judges in my jurisdiction usually double the amount of the sentence. So if you want to avoid a three month jail sentence, expect to pay *whips out calculator* at least two grand. There are also work release programs where you sleep in jail at night but work outside during the day. Counties usually charge a small amount per day for that as well. My county discontinued the program several years ago for administrative reasons, though.
Even something as simple as community service costs a one-time $100 “processing fee”.
Realistically, there are three sentencing options for a misdemeanor: jail, probation, or a fine. One deprives you of the ability to make income and the other two simply take it from you. With felonies it's similar, except it's prison, community corrections (think halfway house), probation, or an exorbitant fine. I will admit my clients rarely get assessed fines, but as you can see, that doesn't make much of a difference to the bottom line.
Another thing that may be unique to my state: a few years ago they broke drug crimes into their own categories, and lessened the sentencing for them. As a part of this, they made it clear that probation and treatment are supposed to be a first resort. However, on top of that, they enforce “drug offender surcharges” that are mandatory and in addition to any other costs, fees or fines. For a basic misdemeanor plea, the surcharge is $1,000. They increase with level of severity. The purpose is to put it in a slush fund to help pay for treatment, but they're rarely paid, for obvious reasons.
Now if you're incarcerated for even a short period in connection with an accusation, you will likely lose your job. If you serve a jail sentence without work release, your income drops to zero. This includes benefits. I have spent quite a bit of time trying to help former clients get their SSI or Medicaid turned back on after a stint in the jail and it is as frustrating as you can imagine. So, you're convicted of a crime, thereby making you drastically less employable, often after losing any source of income you had and you have these bills to pay.
Of course, because this is America, that bill doesn't just sit there, where you owe the courts several hundred or thousand dollars for several years. One of the first things a client does is set up a payment plan with the courts. If it goes unpaid for a short amount of time it gets sent to court collections. As with any collections scheme, missed or late payments are a huge black mark on your credit report. The payment plan may become a court order, thereby making nonpayment technically contempt. They may be ordered to get a job in order to make the payments, again with the full authority of the court behind said order. They may be forbidden to apply for sources of credit while the payment plan is in affect. A lien can be placed on any real property they own. And of course, because this is a late-capitalist hell-hole, interest accrues on the total. And the interest starts at sentencing, so if you are imprisoned for several years, you will have no money, no income, and a much larger bill when you're released on parole.
Just to put some sugar on top, many of these costs are non-waivable, so a sympathetic judge cannot make a sentence that doesn't include them. The ones that may be waived or suspended are usually only done so at the discretion of the court after a separate post-sentence hearing to determine a client's indigence or inability to pay. I'll leave you to imagine how often those are successful.
So, this is probably not really news to most people, or maybe the idea is but not the exact details. We can hardly call them hidden costs, either, because they're usually spelled out in statute or provided to the client in a handy invoice upon conviction.
That being said, I think there are less obvious ways than this debt slavery that my clients suffer for the benefit of capital. Again, I'm not as qualified to go into the details of the prison-industrial complex, mostly because you don't have a right to a lawyer once you make it to prison or parole, except for narrowly tailored appeals issues. Suffice to say, it's a fucking nightmare.
But one major and in my opinion transparent way that the criminal justice system financially exploits my clients for the benefit of capital is turning them into nearly unemployable people and then forcing them into the labor market under threat of incarceration.
It is a standard condition of probation and parole to have or be seeking employment (or education, in some cases). A violation of parole or probation will likely result in incarceration. So the system makes you entirely unqualified or unappealing for most worthwhile forms of work and then forces you to perform some other kind. One judge I practice in front of likes to sentence a probationer to 500 hours of useful public service, suspended upon providing proof of a paying job. On it's face, this is a way of preventing idle time where people get up to no good. Realistically, it simply forces recently incarcerated people to find whatever job they can, usually at distressingly low wages and in exploitative circumstances.
One of the stated purposes of probation and parole is to assist the probationer with reintegrating into society. This includes helping them find work. This is a lofty goal which the system falls woefully short. Probation and parole officers are low-paid civil servants who may have high ideals when they begin work but are generally incapable or unwilling to perform their duties adequately. Not to say that I haven't encountered some who do a good job of this, but they are the rare exception.
The benefits of this system for capital are readily apparent. With a large population of former convicts or simple misdemenants floating around desperate for work, employers can pay low wages with no benefits in jobs that are low-skilled often dangerous, and that person has to either suck it up or go back to jail. There are plenty of people just like them out there and don't think employers don't know this. Even worse, these employers can turn it into a positive, framing it as a type of public service or a moral belief in second chances – one that they are taking a hefty risk to perform, they might add.
In essence, the court system is supposedly a neutral arbiter designed to punish crime and make victims whole, with some lip service to assisting the criminal in becoming a contributing member of society. In reality, it has become a system that directly leeches money from the most vulnerable members of society and has the added effect of creating lucrative side-industries, like for-profit prisons, bail bonds parasites, and the private defense bar (I somewhat understand my colleagues who cash out and go private, but I have to admit some small amount of contempt for them). It also forces people into debt peonage and undermines their value as laborers to ensure that there is a large pool of low-cost, powerless labor that capital can exploit for profit. It's similar to the immigration system, with the threat of re-incarceration or deportation allowing employers to take advantage of these workers/migrants with below-living wages, long hours without overtime, dangerous working conditions, wage theft, and zero benefits, knowing that their power over them is immense.
As I reread this, it's a little bit of dog-bites-man and may not spur much meaningful discussion. But I'm gonna post it anyway because You Gotta Post.