Right on Crime: Excessive Fines and Fees Are Hindering Reentry in Louisiana
By Scott Peyton
Act 260 (HB 249) is one of ten bills that make up Louisiana’s 2017 Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) reforms. The goal of Act 260 is “to ensure that criminal justice fines and fees do not become a barrier to successful reentry.” This bill was to be effective on August 1, 2018; however, in the 2018 Legislative Session, it was pushed back to August 1, 2019. Act 260’s proper implementation is critical to the success of the overall JRI reforms.
Kahryn Riley, director of criminal justice reform at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, sums this issue up best in an interview with Watchdog.org:
“Saddling defendants with criminal justice debt is bad for public safety because it is discoverable on background checks, making it difficult to find employment and harder to get back on track. This can create a vicious cycle of reoffending and incarceration that creates massive social and financial costs.”
This problem is not unique to Louisiana and fees and fines have become a barrier to successful reentry.
Louisiana is tied in 2nd place for the highest poverty rate in the nation at 19.7%. When we saddle the 62,000 plus persons on probation and parole (PNP) supervision with the responsibility of financing PNP’s budget and the courts budgets we are feeding this vicious cycle. In 2017, PNP revocations were responsible for 51 percent of the prison admissions. Eighty percent of the PNP admissions were for technical violations. Failure to make payments is considered a technical violation of PNP.
As a former PNP officer, I have seen first-hand this vicious cycle play out over the course of supervision. In those cases where fees are in arrears, the need to collect fees from the probationer or parolee becomes high priority for the supervising officer. While very few persons are revoked for this alone, being in arrears on fees and fines places the probationer or parolee in a difficult position. This added financial burden also creates stress on the other barriers to successful reentry like housing, transportation, and employment.
There is no denying that the collection of supervision fees are a high priority for PNP officers. As pressure mounts on probationers and parolees to make payments, they begin, out of fear, to miss office visits when they do not have their monthly fees. This leads to violations like failure to report, which can eventually result in a technical revocation. Equally important, these office visits are critical meetings where PNP officers help those on supervision overcome the many barriers they face. The vicious cycle starts when probationers and parolees miss out on office visits, become overwhelmed, and eventually give up on supervision.
In some cases, probation sentences were being extended past five years, simply because of a probationer’s inability to pay fees and fines. This has led to them remaining on probation longer than the statute allowed. If someone has remained crime free and followed the conditions of supervision for the period of their probationary period, they should not have to continue supervision because of financial obligations. There are exceptions when the monies owed are for victim restitution. Act 260 addresses these issues in great detail.
Act 260 was designed to work in conjunction with the other nine parts of the JRI Legislation. So far, we have already seen some very promising results this first full year as a result of the reforms. We need to move forward and get this important part of the package implemented. In order to break this vicious cycle we have to work to ensure the barriers to success are removed while ensuring public safety and victim rights. The public, victims, and the criminal justice system as a whole are not served when financial barriers are causing probationers and parolees to violate their conditions of supervision and return to prison.