Measures Aimed At Keeping People Out Of Jail Punish The Poor
Electronic monitoring devices provide an alternative to sending someone to jail. For a defendant, an ankle bracelet means returning to family and work. For corrections officials, it saves money by reducing overcrowded jails and prisons. But those devices are expensive.
A nationwide survey by NPR found that 49 states — every state except Hawaii, plus the District of Columbia — now allow or require the cost to be passed along to the person ordered to wear one.
Sometimes that means people with money get to go home, while those without go to jail. Like Tom Barrett.
The Augusta, Ga., man was arrested after he stole a can of beer from a refrigerator in a gas station convenience store in 2012. He pleaded "no contest" and a judge sentenced him to 12 months of probation and said Barrett could be released as long as he wore an ankle bracelet. But when he didn't have the money to pay for it, he was sent to jail.
The bracelet, which is a kind of Breathalyzer strapped to his ankle, was expensive. It cost $12 a day. In addition, there was a $50 set up fee, a $39 a month fee to the private probation company that supervised his release, and the money to install a land-line phone for the system to work. It totaled more than $400 a month.
Barrett had been homeless, until just before he stole that beer. He was living in a subsidized efficiency apartment that cost him $25 a month. To afford even that much, he had to sell his plasma at the blood bank.
As a former pharmacist, Barrett had once lived a comfortable, middle-class life. But he became addicted to the drugs he was supposed to be safeguarding. He lost his job, and his family.
There were years of run-ins with the law, mostly related to public drunkenness.
This time, however, it was for a minor shoplifting charge, which shouldn't carry any jail time. It "didn't seem like justice," Barrett says about being jailed when he couldn't pay for the electronic monitor.
"I should not have taken that beer. I was dead wrong," he says. "But to spend 12 months in jail for stealing one can of beer? It just didn't seem right."
'The Monitor Worked'
Barrett, who turned down a public defender because it would have cost him $50, was sentenced to 12 months in jail. But after two months, his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor agreed to help him start paying for the electronic monitoring.
Barrett got out of jail. And that's when the alcohol monitoring bracelet --- a kind of black plastic collar — was attached to his leg.
"The monitor worked," he says. "The monitor was a good thing. And my life started getting better, just by me not drinking."
With the monitor on, for the first time in years, Barrett was sober.
But he still had to pay the high fees that went with it. His only income was food stamps and the $30 he made when he sold his plasma.
So the fees went unpaid. After almost six months, Barrett was called back to court. He faced going back to jail.
Only this time, he found an attorney, Jack Long, who challenged the fees. Augusta Superior Court Judge Daniel Craig then ruled that Barrett's monitor should be removed and he didn't have to return to jail.
Last September, Craig expanded his ruling and put a temporary stop to forcing people to pay for the devices. The Supreme Court of Georgia will take up the issue later this year.
The Costs Of Electronic Monitoring
The device that helped Barrett is called SCRAMX, for Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitor. It can measure a person's sweat for evidence of drinking alcohol.
The more common electronic monitoring devices check a person's location. So if a judge gives a curfew to someone awaiting trial, the device can tell if they are home on time. Some devices come with a GPS unit and can tell if, for example, a sex offender has been lurking near an elementary school.
Companies that make the devices — in their marketing materials — tell courts, and probation and parole agencies they can charge the users of those electronic monitoring devices.
"It's very easy for jurisdictions to pass the cost on to the offender," says George Drake, a consultant to government agencies that want to set up electronic monitoring systems. "No one wants to raise taxes on the public. Politicians — it's the last thing they want to do."
Most states face sizable budget deficits. So state legislators — often lobbied by the companies that make the devices — pass legislation to require offenders to pay the fees.
But Drake often advises that government agencies are better off paying the bill for the monitors; rather than chasing after money from the usually indigent offenders.
"More often than not, these offenders don't have resources," he says. "They're paying court fees, they're paying other fines, they're paying supervision fees and restitution to the victim and they're being set up to fail because they just cannot afford all these fees that have been assessed to them."
A spokeswoman for Alcohol Monitoring Systems, the company that makes the SCRAMX, says it points courts to alternative ways of charging fees.
Most courts use sliding scale fees, based on how much the offender can pay. Or, the company tells them how to find grant money to help poor people pay for the monitors.
Barrett is trying to turn his life around. He's sober now.
One day last year, Barrett returned to the convenience store where he was arrested. He wanted to apologize to the owner for stealing the beer. Nervously, he walked in. The owner was gone, but he apologized to the man's wife. Then he went outside, borrowed a phone, and called the blood bank, to set up an appointment to come in to donate and get the money to pay back the $1.29 he owes the convenience store.
Barrett will be the first to tell you that it was his substance abuse and his crimes that caused his problems. But it was his debt from going through court that seemed to mock his every attempt to recover and get his life going again — the fee after fee after fee that is now common across America.
NPR's Emma Anderson, Nicole Beemsterboer, Robert Benincasa and Barbara Van Woerkom contributed reporting and research to this investigation.
ARUN RATH, HOST:
It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. In a moment we'll have the latest updates on a mass shooting that took place last night in Isla Vista, California. That's near the campus of UC Santa Barbara. Seven people have been killed. The alleged shooter apparently is among those dead and police are now trying to piece together exactly what happened and why. We'll have that story coming up on the program.
But first, we're returning to NPR's series Guilty and Charged. We've been exploring the growing practice of charging user fees to people who come through the court system on felonies and even for low-level misdemeanors. Like making them pay when they're ordered to wear an ankle bracelet. Those electronic monitoring devices can be an alternative to sending someone to jail but the ankle bracelets are expensive and the cost is usually passed on to the people who are ordered to wear one. NPR correspondent Joseph Shapiro reports.
JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Tom Barrett is standing outside a convenience store in Augusta, Georgia. The last time he was here, he got arrested for shoplifting a can of beer worth less than $2.
TOM BARRETT: And I was debating, in my head I was saying, man, I really shouldn't do this. Oh heck, I'm just going to do it. So I walked out with the beer. Nobody said anything. I thought, boy that was easy. So I drank the beer, I walked down two blocks. The next thing I know two cop cars came and I got arrested.
BYLINE: Barrett has returned to this gas station convenience store today because he wants to go back inside and this time apologize to the owner. Barrett's been sober for months. Right now he's nervous. But before we go into the store with him, we need to talk about what happened to Tom Barrett after he took that beer from the convenience store refrigerator.
Because this is a story about how states across the country impose a growing number of fees on the people who come through the court system; fees that can add up to hundreds or even thousands of dollars, all passed on to that defendant or person in jail or on probation who most of the time is impoverished to begin with. Sometimes when they don't pay they even go to jail.
NPR did a nationwide survey and found that in 44 states people can be charged fees for their own probation and parole supervision. At least 41 states allow people to be charged room and board when they're in jail or prison. And one of the most common fees of all in 49 states - that's every state except Hawaii plus the District of Columbia - there are laws to allow or even require that the cost of the monitoring device gets charged to the person ordered to wear it, like Tom Barrett.
BARRETT: I decided to plead no contest and I figured I'd get 12 months probation, community service and a fine, and I'd go home. So I went to court and that's exactly what happened. But there was one more stipulation. Judge Watkins said: And Mr. Barrett, you're going to have to have a leg monitor on.
RATH: And it was going to cost him $12 a day to rent the ankle bracelet, a $50 setup fee, a $39 a month supervision fee to pay his probation officer and the money to install a landline phone for the system to work. It was more than $400 a month.
BARRETT: And so the judge says: You're going to be locked up until you can arrange to have this leg monitor put on your ankle. And I'm thinking, that'll be never. I don't have the money. I absolutely don't have the money.
BYLINE: Barrett had been homeless until just before he stole that beer when he moved into a subsidized efficiency apartment for just $25 a month. But even to pay for that he sold his plasma at the blood bank. He'd once lived a comfortable middle-class life. He was a pharmacist but he got addicted to the drugs he was supposed to be safeguarding. He lost his job, his family.
There were years of run-ins with the law, mostly related to public drunkenness. Now, he couldn't pay for the electronic monitor and other fees. Barrett had no money so he went to jail.
BARRETT: That didn't seem - it doesn't seem like justice to me. I mean, I should not have taken that beer. I was dead wrong. But to spend 12 months in jail for stealing one can of beer? I just didn't - it didn't seem right.
BYLINE: Normally there'd be no jail sentence on the shoplifting charge for a can of beer worth less than $2. Barrett went to jail because he couldn't pay the fees. Now, you might be thinking, so why didn't Barrett's attorney object to all those fees? Barrett didn't have an attorney. He couldn't afford the fee for one. In Georgia and 42 other states, according to a survey by NPR and the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, there's even a charge for that supposedly free public defender.
BARRETT: Fifty dollars administration fee.
BYLINE: Did that have an impact?
BARRETT: Oh yeah, well, I mean, $50 is a lot of money when you have no income. And so I figured, well, the outcome's going to be the same whether I have a public defender or not, so I might as well just plead no contest and save the $50.
BYLINE: Barrett was sentenced to 12 months in jail. But after two months his sponsor in Alcoholics Anonymous agreed to help him start paying for the electronic monitoring. Barrett got out of jail and that's when the alcohol monitoring bracelet, a kind of black plastic collar, was attached to his leg.
BARRETT: Well, the thing is, the monitor worked. The monitor was a good thing and my life started getting better just by me not drinking.
BYLINE: With the monitor on, for the first time in years, Barrett was sober. But he still had to pay the high fees that went with that monitor, hundreds of dollars a month. His only income was food stamps and the 30 bucks he made when he sold his plasma. So the fees went unpaid. After almost six months Barrett was called back to court. He faced going back to jail, only this time he found an attorney who was challenging the fees.
An Augustus Superior Court Judge then ruled that Barrett's monitor should come off. Last September, that Judge Daniel Craig expanded his ruling. In court he explained why he was putting a temporary stop to forcing poor people in Richmond County to pay for their devices.
JUDGE DANIEL CRAIG: Maybe we ought to be about the business of avoiding due process to Americans. Maybe we ought to be about the business of seeing to it that their rights are protected.
BYLINE: For people who would otherwise be behind bars, electronic monitoring returns them to family and work. For corrections officials, the bracelets save money by reducing overcrowded jails and prisons. But buying or leasing the equipment and setting up 'round the clock monitoring is expensive. It's more than a $1,000 for governments to purchase some of these bracelets. George Drake is a consultant to government agencies that want to set up electronic monitoring.
GEORGE DRAKE: It's very easy for jurisdictions to pass the cost onto the offender. No one wants to raise taxes on the public. Politicians, that's the last thing they want to do.
BYLINE: Most states face sizeable budget deficits, so state legislators, often lobbied by the companies that make the devices, pass legislation to require offenders, an unpopular group, to pay the fees. But Drake advices government agencies that they're often better off paying the bill for the monitors rather than chasing after money from the usually indigent offenders.
DRAKE: But more often than not, these offenders don't have resources. And they're paying court fees, they're paying other fines, they're paying supervision fees and restitution to the victim. And they're being set up to fail because they just cannot afford all of these fees that have been assessed to them.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARKETING VIDEO)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is where SCRAMX comes in, with both continuous alcohol monitoring and house arrest in one device.
BYLINE: That's a marketing video for the electronic monitoring device that Tom Barrett ended up wearing. It's called SCRAMX. SCRAM stands for Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitor. It's kind of like wearing a breathalyzer on your ankle. It can measure a person's sweat for evidence of drinking alcohol.
The more common electronic monitoring devices check not drinking but a person's location. So if a judge gives a curfew to someone awaiting trial, the device can tell if they're home on time. Some devices come with a GPS unit and can tell if, say, a sex offender has been working near an elementary school. Companies that make the devices, in their marketing materials, tell courts and probation and parole agencies they can charge the users of those electronic monitoring devices.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARKETING VIDEO)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Of particular importance to many courts and agencies, the SCRAMX service provider works directly with the offender to handle billing and fee collection.
BYLINE: A spokeswoman for the company that makes the SCRAMX says it points court systems to alternative ways of charging fees. Most courts use sliding scale fees based on how much the offender can pay or even find grant money to help poor people pay for the monitors. Which brings us back to that gas station convenience store and Tom Barrett. He's trying to turn his life around. He's sober. He's taking classes at a community college.
And now Barrett walks into the gas station convenience store because he wants to apologize for shoplifting that beer.
BARRETT: Yeah, my name's Tom Barrett. I was in here April 27, 2012 and I stole a beer. I got arrested for shoplifting. I'm here one, to just say I'm sorry. And I need to find out what I need to do to make this situation right. I need to pay for it but I want to make it right.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: My husband will be here tomorrow morning and I will tell him that - what's your name?
BARRETT: Tom Barrett.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Tom - yeah, that you...
RATH: Barrett wants to pay back the price of the beer. He says it was $1.29 but he has no money. Back outside I give Barrett my cell phone.
BARRETT: Yeah, it's ringing right? OK, voice mail.
BYLINE: He calls the blood center. He's got the number written in faded ballpoint ink on the back of his hand.
BARRETT: This is Thomas Barrett. I was just calling to see if my protein sample had come back from the lab yet so I can donate plasma. I'll just call back later. Thank you.
BYLINE: Tom Barrett will be the first to tell you that it was his substance abuse and his crimes that caused his problems. But it was his debt from going through court that seemed to mock his every attempt to recover and get his life going again, the fee after fee after fee that is now common across America. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RATH: To see all our stories from the Guilty and Charged series, including a state-by-state look at court fees and a historical look at electronic monitoring devices, go to npr.org.
And today we're also following the news out of Isla Vista, California near the campus of UC Santa Barbara. Seven people were killed there last night in a mass shooting. The alleged shooter was among those who died and police are investigating. We'll have the latest on that story right after our break.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RATH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.