ABA Journal

Get Out of Jail—But Not Free: Courts Scramble to Fill Their Coffers by Billing Ex-Cons

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In Monopoly, a roll of the dice can get you a chance to draw a “get out of jail free” card to keep your piece moving around the board. But in the game of life, it takes real money to get out and stay out of real jails.

The lesson is not lost on Ameen Muqtadir. When he walked out of a Pennsylvania prison in 2002 after serving a stretch for robbery, he says, he was determined to put down the heroin and cocaine that he blames for keeping him behind bars on and off since his teens.

“I was able to walk away from the system entirely,” recalls Muqtadir, 54. Or so he thought.

Years after he returned to his hometown of Philadelphia, Muqtadir found the system hadn’t let him go. He learned the Philadelphia courts had him on the hook for nearly $41,000 in forfeited bail and costs for failure to appear in 1991 and again in 1997 in two earlier robbery cases.

The problem: Muqtadir couldn’t come to court because he was locked up in prison, and the underlying charges in the other cases had been dismissed in the meantime.

“There was never any notice,” says Muqtadir, who today works as program director for Art House, a re-entry service for ex-offenders. “No letters for money. Nothing ever happened.”

Muqtadir learned about the forfeitures when he was caught up in a sweep launched last year to collect up to $1.5 billion in unpaid criminal fines and costs, including $1 billion in bail the courts say is forfeited. The sweep covers an estimated 320,000 people—nearly a quarter of the city’s population. Some delinquent accounts date to the 1970s.

Since the 1990s, state and local governments across the nation increasingly have turned to fees imposed on criminal defendants to keep their justice systems afloat in economically tough times. Besides fines, deemed punishment, and restitution, which repays victims, states have imposed thousands of other revenue-raising schemes on offenders. Many have faint ties to crime and punishment or individual offenses, such as an attempt by a Massachusetts sheriff to increase charges for county jail inmates’ haircuts above the $1.50 limit set by state prisons.

Usually, though, much of the money is uncollectible. Ex-offenders typically move often, making it difficult if not impossible to serve them with delinquency notices or arrest warrants. Others, such as Muqtadir, hide in plain sight: in prison. But advocates say most are just too poor to pay.

Threats of more jail time for nonpayment also constantly loom. Some critics worry heavy-handed tactics used to collect from ex-offenders signal a return, in effect, to debtors’ prisons, which were abolished in the United States in the 1830s.

“I’ve never been in a courtroom where people are so angry as when it’s one of our cases,” says Muqtadir’s lawyer, Sharon M. Dietrich of Philadelphia’s Community Legal Services, which provides free representation to poor people.

Though she’s an employment lawyer, Dietrich says she’s amazed she spends so much time lately in criminal court.

“I even had one guy with paperwork from the ’90s that said ‘final payment’ and was signed by a court officer,” Dietrich says. “I’ve seen grandmothers paying for their grandsons, thinking [they themselves are] going to jail.”

Click here to read the rest of “Get Out of Jail—But Not Free” from the July issue of the ABA Journal.

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