In California a debate is ongoing over the bail system for criminal defendants. At issue is whether the big fees required of those who have to go to bail bond companies amount to an injustice. There’s a good argument that such is the case.
Consider, as an Associated Press story did, that people without the funds to post their own bail have to go to bonding companies, where they promise to pay 10 percent plus interest of the bail amount in order to get out of jail. If the bail is $150,000, as it was in one case cited, the defendant promises to pay $15,000 plus interest.
But in the case examined by the AP, the district attorney didn’t bring charges. However, the defendant still was obligated for the fees. Had the defendant had resources to put up as collateral for bail, she would not have been out anything.
Under the U.S. Constitution, the justice system isn’t supposed to discriminate based on a defendant’s ability to pay. But this bail system seems to do just that, which is why there is a movement to reform it.
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In North Carolina, as noted by Tamar Birckhead, professor at the UNC-Chapel Hill law school, in a recent op-ed column, court fees are forever increasing, and that makes it harder on lower-income defendants. Birckhead rightly calls the fees the basis of what amounts to a “debtors’ prison.”
Many of those who encounter the criminal justice system are poor. Their poverty may be a reason they’re in the system because they committed some desperate act. It’s also possible that, if they were able somehow to get adequate legal representation, they may prove they aren’t guilty of the crimes with which they’ve been charged.
Regardless, they’re going to face an ever-increasing number of fees, Birckhead says. In District Court, the standard general court fees are $173; in Superior Court, they’re $198.
And that can be just the beginning. The professor says there are more than 100 “legal financial obligations” that can be assigned to defendants depending upon the case. The system that is supposed to provide the poor equal justice has hit them with a burden someone middle class or with an even greater income wouldn’t feel.
Clearly, North Carolina should follow New Jersey, for one example, where the state made it possible for defendants to seek relief from some of the oppressive debts they’ve incurred in the court system.