Caught in Rhode Island

An investigation into how court fees and fines trap low-income Rhode Islanders in poverty

by Sydney Anderson, Harry August, Matt Ishimaru, Olivia Kan-Sperling, Sophie Khomtchenko, Alina Kulman, Julia Rock, Nick Roblee-Strauss & Lucas Smolcic Larson

Illustration by Pia Mileaf-Patel

published April 19, 2019

When Roberto Torres appeared in District Court on February 14, 2019, and plead no contest to a reckless driving charge, he was unemployed, on food stamps, and already $1,417.32 in debt to the Rhode Island Judiciary for a litany of past violations.

This legally qualifies Torres, 27, as an indigent defendant: someone with a severely restricted ability to pay his fines and court fees. This also qualified the judge, Joseph T. Houlihan Jr., to remit—eliminate—some or all the court costs. Instead, in an arraignment that lasted only a few minutes, Houlihan Jr. sentenced Torres the maximum fine: $500. And beyond that, Torres found out after the arraignment that this sentence included an additional $142.75 in court costs and fees—bringing his current outstanding debt to $2,144. 

Each month, Torres and the other 48,026 individuals in debt to the Rhode Island District Court, must submit a minimum payment to the court of $10, or as much as they can afford. On April 2, Torres paid $6.07. At that rate, with no further convictions, Torres will still be in debt until at least 2038. And Torres knows the stakes are high: “If I can’t afford the payment, they issue a court warrant,” he told the College Hill Independent last week. 

If a defendant misses a monthly payment, the court will automatically issue an arrest warrant, dragging him back before a judge, and, if that judge finds “willful nonpayment,” to jail. What’s more, the costs of this arrest warrant—$125—could be tacked on to Torres’s debt, a process he has already undergone twice in the past five years. (District Court Administrator Stephen Waluk wrote in an email to the Indy that this only occurs “after multiple incidences of appearing and being unable to pay.”)  

Torres is now part of what many call a “two-tiered justice system.” In Rhode Island and across the country, the well-off easily pay court costs, dodging prison and further involvement with the legal system, while low-income defendants, disproportionately people of color, are cast headlong into a cycle of debt. Often, these individuals must choose between meeting basic expenses, like rent, and paying the courts to avoid being locked up. Within a criminal justice system that time and time again produces punitive outcomes for low-income communities, subjecting them to harsh policing and incarceration, fees and fines are a quiet but far-reaching burden.

“If we are forcing someone to choose between feeding their kid or paying their court fine and not going back to prison … that is a violent choice that we have forced someone to make,” said Jordan Seaberry, director of public policy and advocacy for the Providence-based Nonviolence Institute and a long-time advocate for a more humane justice system. 

It’s a decision enforced by coercion, he said. Studies published in 2008 and 2016 showed nonpayment (technically, a failure to appear at a payment date) is a leading cause of incarceration in Rhode Island, accounting for 15.5 percent of all commitments in 2015. Officially, debtor’s prison was abolished by the federal government in 1833, and the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution protects against excessive monetary sanctions. But for people who pass through Rhode Island’s state courts, debt can be all-consuming, deepening poverty, damaging employment prospects, and threatening the ability to hold a driver’s license.

Taking stock of this system, the Indy decided to document what is happening every day in our state’s courts. Our nine-person investigative team spent many hours in the courtroom, interviewed lawyers, advocates, and defendants, and compiled a year’s worth of the Judiciary’s online court payment records.

Over three months, we observed over 100 arraignments and 11 sentencings involving the imposition of fees and fines at the Sixth District courthouse in Providence. We documented little to no efforts by judges to assess low-income defendants’ ability to pay these sums, as is required by state law. (In a handful of cases, judges waived court costs, imposed on top of a fine, at the request of a public defender.) And remittances must happen from the bench: Clerks, who actually handle the money, said they could easily put someone on an installment plan of just a few dollars a month but couldn’t waive costs themselves.

Data we obtained by public records request from the Rhode Island Judiciary show that just over half of all court fees and fines imposed in criminal cases in Superior Court and nearly 20 percent imposed in District Court—some $50 million in total—are outstanding, as of last year. In Fiscal Year 2018, Superior Court collected only eight percent of court costs assessed that year in criminal cases, while the District Court’s first-year collection rate was just 24 percent. This indicates that defendants are overwhelmingly unable to pay their court costs. 

Furthermore, judges are ignoring state laws on the books that empower them to end the cycle of debt. According to our analysis of online payment data for over 28,000 separate cases in 2018 (85.8 percent of criminal cases filed in District and Superior Court that year), when people are brought before a judge for an “ability-to-pay hearing," costs are remitted just 0.35 percent of the time—only 25 of 7,160 hearings in 2018 resulted in debts being lowered. 

These numbers paint a picture of a court system hell-bent on trying to “squeeze blood from a stone, to wring these costs out of people who simply cannot pay them,” in the words of Natalia Friedlander, a staff attorney at the Rhode Island Center for Justice. How did we get to this point? And what needs to change? We asked these questions of everyone we talked to, from defendants to defense lawyers. Their answers indicate that Rhode Island’s situation is far from inevitable and definitely not irreversible. It’s the story of squandered reform, where an undergraduate thesis from 2016 stands as one of the only thorough accounts of how fees and fines excessively punish the poor in Rhode Island. Three years later, our investigation shows this is still a reality. 

A Day in Court

Each weekday morning, the same scene repeats itself inside the Garrahy Judicial Complex, the imposing red-brick home of the Sixth District Court in downtown Providence. After shedding belts and watches to pass through the metal detectors at the door (a pile of contraband pocket knives tends to develop under a shrub outside the main doors), people mill about the fourth floor, outside Courtroom 4C. There are lawyers in dark suits, police officers in uniform, and friends and family of defendants in street clothes. Arraignments are scheduled to start at 9 AM, although the hearings are often delayed for half an hour or more. 

When the doors are unlocked, a small crowd files into the rows in the back half of the room. A low wooden barrier cuts the room in half, separating observers from the bench. Defendants who have been held overnight in Rhode Island’s Adult Correctional Institute (ACI) are then brought in through a side door by police officers, walking slowly to the jury box, as they are handcuffed and chained to each other in pairs. Other people charged with minor offenses, like driving on a suspended license, sit in the rows, waiting for their names to be called. 

Before long, one of the police officers in the courtroom rolls out an enormous cathode-ray television set that plays a grainy VHS tape narrated by District Court Judge Robert Pirraglia, who retired 15 years ago. As ’90s-style animations show the scales of justice and wooden gavels, Pirraglia begins to explain: “Anyone charged with an offense has certain legal rights. Here they are....” He outlines the different types of offenses defendants may be charged with, the different types of bail, and, most importantly, their constitutional rights in the courtroom. Then, the video repeats in Spanish—not that the courtroom’s occupants are necessarily paying attention to the tape. Defendants are still filing in, and many are not even present at this point, missing the opportunity to hear a clear, albeit dated, explanation of their legal rights. 


The video outlines defendants’ right to legal counsel. Nationally, 80 percent of criminal defendants can’t afford a lawyer. But many days, there are no public defenders at arraignments in District Court, as they often have to prioritize cases that are going to trial. They are, like public defenders everywhere in the country, incredibly overworked. A 2017 study of workloads in the Rhode Island Public Defender’s Office found that it would need approximately 85 additional full-time attorneys to fully attend to its nearly 300,000 hours of work per year. So if defendants plead guilty or nolo contendere, meaning they agree not to contest their charge, judges guide the whole arraignment, and defendants are forced to navigate negotiations over their court fines and fees on their own. 

And so they do. All morning, judges call out the accused by name and birthdate, summoning them to the bench. There, the judge reads out charges. Rhode Island is one of about 14 states in the nation that let police officers serve as prosecutors in district court. (Two local legal experts, Roger Williams law professors Andy Horwitz and John Grasso, maintain that this is illegal since cops are not licensed to practice law. They wrote in a 2006 article in the Rhode Island Bar Journal that police prosecutors practically make Rhode Island an “unsupervised police state.”) 

Cops cycle in and out of the courtroom, reading from police reports: domestic disputes, traffic stops, assaults. Defendants are instructed to listen quietly, as the police prosecutors outline the alleged crimes. Then the judge asks how they choose to plea. If a defendant chooses guilty or nolo contendere—and many do, forfeiting their right to a trial in favor of a plea deal and quicker resolution of their charges—fines are assessed according to statute. The process is a finely-tuned machine, with a handful of bailiffs channeling defendants to the bench and disciplining those who disrupt order in the courtroom. Each case, from the description of the alleged crime to the plea and sentencing, takes only a few minutes. 

Rhode Island law instructs judges to consider a defendant's finances. Section 12-21-20 reads, “In district court, the judge shall make a preliminary assessment of the defendant’s ability to pay [fees and fines] immediately after sentencing or nearly thereafter….” Whether this happens in practice seems to be entirely at the whim of whichever judge is presiding that day.
Angela Lawless, a former public defender in district courtrooms in Providence and Newport, has represented many people with histories of repeated legal involvement—and years of accumulated debt. “There’s a decent number of judges on the District Court bench who are amenable to listening to what your client’s circumstances are and potentially remitting or waiving court costs,” she said.

Based on our observation, some judges are more willing to negotiate than others. The same day Judge Houlihan gave Roberto Torres the maximum fine, he waived the court fees for a defendant charged with driving with a suspended license, on the basis that he found the defendant's car model, a Toyota Corolla, “so sad.” (The Judiciary did not respond to a request for comment in response to his statement.) Cases likes these show the arbitrary nature of waving court fees and fines, which often seems to be as reliant on the judge’s whim, or the presence of a public defender, as it is on the defendant’s actual ability to pay.

But time and again, we observed defendants accept fines with no inquiry into their ability to pay them, no elaboration of what fees would be attached to the fine, and no discussion of the possible consequences of nonpayment (notably, incarceration). Lawless said that costs are “really only discussed if the defense attorney brings [them] up and asks for [them] to be waived” during sentencing. 

After a defendant pleads guilty or nolo contendere at the initial hearing, they go to the clerk’s desk, where they are assigned a fee, which is a user cost the courts charge defendants on top of any fines they receive for breaking the law. Ideally, a public defender should be present to help them understand what the fees mean and how payment will work, but this depends on the availability of the Public Defender's Office on any given day. 

Court fees are minor compared to a large fine or long probation, but they are frequently a huge hidden cost—sometimes adding hundreds of dollars in extra debt. Take driving under the influence, for example. The fine for a first violation is set at $100 or greater. But on top of that fine, a $500 “Highway Assessment Fee” is added, which goes into the state’s general fund, just like a fine, as well as an $86 court fee. Thus, the total sum owed is more than six times as much as minimum the fine alone. In addition, defendants have to pay hundreds of dollars more on a driver's education class and license reinstatement costs. Over the course of our time in court, the Indy observed two first-time DUI pre-trial hearings, and on both occasions the judge, Associate Judge Christopher Smith, only mentioned the $100 fine during the hearing—leaving the defendant to discover the additional hundreds of dollars in costs after pleading guilty or no contest. 

Fees and fines together comprise the debt an individual owes to the court, and if they are unable to pay in full at the time of sentencing (which District Court Clerk Jim Plante estimated to be the reality for about half of all defendants), they are put on a payment plan. Month after month, they have to make small payments towards their debt, at the court, or online if the case is in District Court (plus a 3.25 percent credit card surcharge). A defendant who repeatedly misses a payment date has a bench warrant put out for their arrest for “failure to appear.” They aren’t notified when this happens, but once a bench warrant is issued, any police encounter, even without an offense, can result in an arrest and commitment to the Intake Service Center at Rhode Island’s ACI.

Ronnie Walker, 53, has been on a payment plan of $10 per month for the past year. When we spoke to him in the Sixth District Court clerk’s office, he said he had six or seven months remaining to pay off his debt. “[You] just gotta pay to keep warrants and police out of your hair, because if they pick you up on a Friday [for nonpayment], you’re locked up for the weekend,” he said. (2008 reforms mandated a 48 hour cap on imprisonment before defendants are brought before a judge, with exceptions for weekends and holidays.)

For others, small debts compound into insurmountable obligations. “It’s a fear that lives inside you,” said Tarah Dorsey, a senior streetworker at the Nonviolence Institute who has been in debt to the Rhode Island Judiciary since her first court appearance in 1996. For 23 years, court debt has been another anxiety on top of “the problems of not being able to get a job because of my [criminal] record, problems of not being able to keep the lights on, or pay my rent,” she said.

While jail is one of the most serious consequences of nonpayment, it isn’t the only one. Rhode Islanders can lose their driver’s license if their court costs go unpaid. As of April 15, 2019, the Rhode Island Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) reported a total of 28,528 drivers (3.7 percent of the state’s licensed and permitted drivers) with unresolved license suspensions as a result of failure to pay or appear in court. Licenses are suspended for a failure to make court payments in the cases heard by the Rhode Island Traffic Tribunal and for a variety of driving-related offenses, like DUIs, in District and Superior Court. If a defendant continues to use their car—a daily necessity for many—charges of driving with a suspended license bring a whole new round of fees, fines, and court obligations they must meet in order to get their license reinstated. 

Marcy Coleman, assistant administrator for safety and regulations at the Rhode Island Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV), advocates for a move away from using suspensions as a punitive measure in non-driving related offenses, like nonpayment. She observes a “downward spiral” of suspensions in cases where people are unable to pay court costs. “We have horrible public transportation,” she said, “a person needs their license here in Rhode Island to get to and from work.” Each court-ordered suspension incurs an additional $151.50 fee to the DMV, on top of the requirement of paying off outstanding court debt or going on a payment plan, to reinstate a license. 

Legislation passed in 2016 reduced penalties on the first two offenses for driving without a license, categorizing them as civil offenses rather than misdemeanors, lowering fines, and eliminating criminal charges. After the first two charges, the offense becomes a misdemeanor, with higher fines and the added potential of jail time in addition to further license suspension (we observed many defendants with six or more driving on a suspended license charges). Coleman reports this shift meant a significant reduction in suspensions. In 2018, out of 7,097 people convicted of driving with a suspended license, only 16 received an additional suspension as a result of these new charges, she said.

These changes came too late for Tarah Dorsey. She was unable to hold a valid license for most of her life, buried under her debt to the courts. But two years ago, at age 39, she finally got one. The total costs involved, to the courts and the DMV: $1,800. 

How We Got Here

The Rhode Island legislature has been increasing the use of fees and fines as a punitive measure since tough-on-crime rhetoric became popular in the ’80s and ’90s. “As mass incarceration grew and criminal justice agency budgets exploded, state and local politicians were either unable or unwilling to fund those agencies through public revenue, so fees being regressive taxes [were] sort of a politically easier imposition,” Jonathan Ben-Menachem, policy and communications associate at the national Fines and Fees Justice Center, told the Indy. A combination of anti-crime and anti-tax rhetoric encouraged politicians to pass what were essentially taxes on the poor to raise revenue.

Since then, court fees and fines have become a broader means of funding state governments. In her 2016 Brown University undergraduate thesis—the most recent comprehensive report on fees and fines in Rhode Island—Rachel Black tracked the way legislation was amended to redirect specific fees into the state’s general fund, while maintaining their original names. (A $100 “lab maintenance fee,” still tacked onto drug possession charges, no longer goes directly to any lab.)

Court costs add up. In 2007, Ricardo Graham spent 40 days in prison as a result of his inability to pay court debts amounting to $745, at an estimated cost to the state of $4,000 for his time at the ACI. Graham found himself subject to Rhode Island’s debt collection system: warrants and imprisonment for those who miss payment dates, even when the cost to the state far outweighs the debt it is owed. He lost his job while behind bars. 

Advocacy by OpenDoors RI (then the Family Life Center) and other organizations brought public attention to the problem of court debt collection. In 2008, the Family Life Center published a lengthy report revealing that failure to pay court debt (or appear at a payment date) was the most common reason for imprisonment in Rhode Island, accounting for 17 percent of all jailings. In 15 percent of all cases, the amount the state spent incarcerating people was more than the amount they owed to the court. 

Judges, who were supposed to consider ability to pay in assessing court costs, typically did not, as a result of merely suggestive statutes and large caseloads that limited time they could dedicate to individual defendants. (Indy reporters witnessed a judge in the Sixth District court with 65 arraignments on his docket on one day in April.) It’s not exactly clear why judges weren’t prioritizing an ability-to-pay determination in assessing these fines, but Rachel Black, in an interview with the Indy, said “at the time [in 2008], at least, the Judiciary didn’t seem to think it was their problem.” 

The lack of financial assessment tools for judges and statutory protections for indigent defendants made it difficult to get out of a courtroom without being sentenced to some amount of court costs—a minimum of $93.50 in fees for misdemeanor charges and $270 for felonies, a statute that still stands. Based on decades of experience with court debt, Dorsey said that she learned early on to expect being penalized with fees in any interaction with the courts, even just setting foot in the courtroom (she plead out most of her charges). 

The under-resourced state, dependent on funds raised through the courts, began to act as a collection agency. By issuing warrants for “failure to appear” at a payment date, rather than “failure to pay,” Rhode Island was able to skirt a 1971 Supreme Court ruling that prohibited states from incarcerating those unable to pay court debts, and requiring that judges must inquire about a person’s ability to pay and consider alternatives before incarceration. 

2008: A First Attempt at Reform

In response to attention generated from the Family Life Center report, the Rhode Island legislature passed a bill in 2008 that, at the time, led the nation in court fee and fine reform. The legislation aimed to protect low-income debtors from punitive debt collection systems managed by the state and reduce the number of people in jail for court debt. Seven years later, however, Rachel Black published her thesis, in which she found that the law, Senate Bill 2234, yielded only moderate results due to weak implementation. 

The bill restricted the amount of time debtors spent in prison, limiting debtor incarceration to a maximum of 48 hours before seeing a judge for an ability-to-pay assessment. It also required that debtors arrested during court hours be taken to court immediately. This stipulation was the strictest and most measurable part of the bill, and Black found in her 2016 research that these stipulations were being enforced. But, according to her thesis, debtors still represent a large portion of the incarcerated population.

The rest of the bill required judges to consider “ability to pay” when assessing court debts, but did not require them to remit any costs if they found a defendant indigent. Despite its weaknesses, the bill marked the first time that Rhode Island judges were explicitly empowered to waive an indigent defendant’s court costs. The bill stipulated that judges use a “financial assessment instrument,” specifying what counts as evidence of indigency, including receiving many forms of public assistance. 
Apparently, encouragement to assess indigency was not enough. Black found in 2016 that, in practice, ability-to-pay assessments happened sporadically at best, and only around three percent of jailed debtors had all costs waived—a tiny fraction of the debtor inmates who were unemployed and likely should have qualified for cost abatement.

Still, the reforms set the stage for incremental change. A coordinating law, passed simultaneously, incentivized the Judiciary to reduce jail time for debtors by crediting $150 towards court debts for each night they spent in jail, later reduced in 2012 to $50 per night. Research by OpenDoors RI found that the credit system immediately reduced the amount of time people were spending in jail on court debt-related charges. Despite its success, the measure essentially amounted to massive spending by the state to alleviate small debts it was never likely to collect. 

In an interview, Jordan Seaberry of the Nonviolence Institute highlighted the “need for the law to state clearly and directly that our courts must meaningfully assess a defendant’s ability to pay in a standardized, comprehensive, and good-faith way.” “The tools are there,” he told the Indy, “but the responsibility is ours.”  


2019: Court Costs Return to the State House 

Much of the national conversation around court costs can be exemplified by an exchange in the Rhode Island State House this past February. On a busy day before the House Judiciary Committee, Nick Horton, who also worked on the 2008 legislation, testified in support of a new law, House Bill 5196, which brings the failed 2008 reforms back into focus. He said that the legislation would “maximize [both] the cost effectiveness of  the [criminal justice] system and the rights of the indigent defendants.” 

The new bill seeks to enforce the requirement that judges routinely take ability to pay into account and makes qualifying for the services of a public defender—being unable to afford a private lawyer—legal evidence of indigency. Significantly, it provides that “no costs shall be ordered unless procedures for determining ability to pay are followed.” House Bill 5196 has found supporters in Rhode Island who have long championed the poor and worked with the legislature on various criminal justice reforms, from community organizers to the Public Defender’s Office. 

At the February hearing, proponents testified to the inefficacy of the 2008 reforms, demonstrating that stronger steps must be taken if the courts' cost assessment system is going to change. Before the Committee, Director of Legislative Initiatives for the Public Defender’s Office Michael DiLauro said that of the 150 lawyers that he reached out to, only one reported ever seeing a judge use the ability-to-pay instrument. (The instrument exists as a one-page form on the Judiciary’s website, but we never saw it in the courtroom. The defendants we talked to didn’t recognize it when we showed it to them.)

Jordan Seaberry, a driving force behind the new bill, implored the legislature and the Judiciary to take a human-centered approach to debt. “When we are talking about this bill we are not just talking about the experience of the Judiciary or the process of being in the courtroom, we’re talking about actual lives. We’re talking about human beings, who impact their families and their communities,” he said. 

The Judiciary’s lobbyist, Elizabeth Suever, responded to Seaberry’s call to humanize debtors with her own call for criminalization, telling the committee, “we’re not talking about innocent until proven guilty, these people are proven guilty.” She added, “We’re now talking about these people paying restitution to people that were harmed, paying for the costs, paying for all these other things … we’re not talking about innocent people anymore.” (Others who testified emphasized that the bill would not affect victims' restitution).

Suever claimed that the bill would exempt far too many people from having to pay fees and fines to the court, pointing out the necessity of these payments in generating the state’s general revenue. “We do want to make sure that if they have any capability whatsoever that they do pay … that’s important to the maintenance of the system, that’s important to keeping taxes low, so everyone doesn’t have to pay for the system,” she said, gesturing towards anti-tax rhetoric reminiscent of the tough on crime moment of the ’90s.

When a committee member asked Suever if she would be able to provide statistical evidence that ability-to-pay assessments are being conducted on a regular basis, she responded, “Maybe? I’ll look into it. I can’t make any promises.” A spokesperson for the Judiciary did not respond to the Indy’s questions about whether financial assessments are conducted on a regular basis.

Ultimately, the hearing spoke to an uncommunicative system that has evolved out of years of piecemeal legislation in which numbers, figures, and spending are poorly tracked—a system held accountable only by watchdogs on the outside.

While there is hope that the bill will reduce the burden on low-income people sentenced to onerous court debt, Ben-Menachem from the Fees and Fines Center told the Indy that “reforms tend to last longer or be implemented more robustly if they happen through litigation because that’s the courts recognizing their obligation.”

It’s one thing for the legislature to make laws instituting fees and fines in a courtroom—a power exerted on defendants—but it’s fundamentally more difficult for the legislature to tell judges what to do on the bench. In Rhode Island, judges and clerks conduct business as they always have, in a system separate from and parallel to the legislature. According to Rachel Black, “[judges and clerks] weren’t surprised nor did they have any problem telling me what’s happening right now because they didn’t see it as being illegal or problematic.”


A Nation of Cash Register Justice

Judicial action on court debt may not be far away. A recent Harvard Law Review article argued that Rhode Island’s ban on debtor’s prison covers incarceration for nonpayment of fines for regulatory offenses, costs, and civil debts because the state constitution does not distinguish between private debts and those owed to the state.

This February, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the Supreme Court’s decision in Timbs v. Indiana, which mandated the application of the constitutional prohibition on excessive fees and fines to the states, tracing the issue back eight centuries. The Magna Carta, Ginsberg wrote, required that “economic sanctions ‘be proportioned to the wrong’ and ‘not be so large as to deprive [an offender] of his livelihood.’” These protections were enshrined in English law, adopted in the American colonies, and finally written into the Eighth Amendment of the US Constitution, which states: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”

But Ginsburg also recognized a centuries-long practice of casting these lofty legal protections aside. The 17th century Stuart kings used “large fines to raise revenue, harass their political foes, and indefinitely detain those unable to pay,” she wrote. After the US Civil War, states in the South  weaponized fines against newly freed slaves. The “Black Codes” employed broadly-defined crimes (“vagrancy,” for example) and draconian fines to force African Americans back into involuntary labor when they could not pay these penalties.

Today, advocates refer to a system of “cash register justice” that “target[s] poor citizens and communities of color for fines and fees,” according to a 2017 report by the US Commission on Civil Rights. As Megan Smith, a longtime caseworker for homeless people in Rhode Island said about court costs: “Fines and fees are definitely one of those things that are implicitly, if not explicitly, classed. They just fundamentally don’t affect rich and poor people the same way.” To her, “it definitely feels like one more way that the system has its thumb on certain people that it doesn’t like and that it wishes would disappear.”


Where We Go From Here

The debate around court debt extends beyond Rhode Island, and national conversations about reform have ramped up over the past few years. The National Task Force on Fines, Fees and Bail Practices, for example, released a set of principles with which each state should assess their own judicial systems. Among these are  key recommendations: provide court funding in its entirety through state government funds, standardize statewide ability-to-pay processes, and abolish interest on court-related debts. But many of these reforms place an emphasis on altering the particulars of court debt rather than changing the underlying reality that fees and fines act as a hidden tax on the poor.

One such reform is alternative payment. In April 2018, a criminal justice reform bill, signed by Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, implemented community service as one such alternative to court costs. The bill also ups the amount people are credited towards their debt for time in prison to $90 a day. However, the legislation still relies on judges determining “substantial financial hardship” for alternative payments to even be considered. And mandatory community service still limits the poor from working, attending school, and caring for children. While Governor Baker portrayed the law as relief for court debtors, it doesn't gaurantee that judges will assess their ability to pay, or that alternative payment methods will be implemented more widely.

San Francisco, heralded as a leader in court debt reform, has attacked the issue more directly. In 2016, the city launched the Financial Justice Project, a branch of the city treasurer’s office aimed at auditing local fees and fines’ effect on the poor. Its first success came in May 2018 with the abolition of all locally-controlled criminal justice administration fees, including a monthly probation fee that had had a collection rate of just nine percent. Getting rid of this fee eliminated $32.7 million of outstanding debt overnight. Additionally, the project created a lower fee for towed and booted cars for those with incomes below 200 percent of the poverty line. The project created a database of low-income residents, so court officials could assess their incomes without the need for paperwork and documentation filed by the arraigned. The project eases court debt for many defendants, yet it fails to standardize ability-to-pay hearings. If judges’ discretion does not act in service of the poor and in conjunction with these programs, the poorest residents will still end up in debt to the court, even for reduced (often halved) fines. For many arraigned San Franciscans—and Rhode Islanders—any fine at all is enough to disrupt their ability to meet basic needs and place them on the precipice of destitution.

Outside the US, Germany offers an even more innovative approach to equalizing criminal justice. Rather than assigning a flat fine for a misdemeanor, like in the US, courts scale fines in proportion to one’s daily income. In Germany, the cost of a misdemeanor is not measured by the ‘cost to society,’ but rather by whatever is considered an appropriate inhibitive penalty on a specific person. After all, traffic violations are committed across class lines.

In the United States, a justice system without punitive fees and fines is, at this point, still beyond reach. The fees—intended to cover administrative processes—could be replaced with funding from states’ revenue. Fines, however, are meant to serve a separate function: inhibiting future crimes through fiscal punishment. But, in practice, these penalties fail to deter criminal behavior and, in doing so, define poverty in criminal terms.


On Monday, the same scene will repeat itself again at the Garrahy Judicial Complex: People mill about waiting for court to open, bailiffs prowl the aisles as the VHS tape rolls, judges call names, clerks hand off stacks of papers, and the defendant approaches the bench. Plea agreements are taken. Fines are levied. Fees are assessed. And more Rhode Islanders enter payment plans, adding to the millions in statewide court debt. To Jordan Seaberry, this debt can be an unspoken life sentence. “We never hear a judge sentence someone ... to a lifetime of economic servitude, but that's the reality.”


Data Explanation

We used several sources of data to report this story. Breakdowns on ability-to-pay hearings, transaction amounts, where cases were filed, and types of charges for 2018 were extracted from the Rhode Island Judiciary Public Portal using a web-scraping program built for this project. This program used the web-browser automation tool Selenium to input case numbers taken from a list of all criminal cases filed at the District and Superior court level. (This list was obtained by public records request from the Judiciary by Megan Smith and shared with us). Our program then retrieved the corresponding case file publicly available through the portal and downloaded relevant information to a local database. Of the 32,756 individual case numbers for 2018, we were able to retrieve 28,088 records (85.8 percent). Somes cases were missing from the portal, though an unknown percentage of failures were due to requests being blocked by the server—likely because of the high volume of requests being made. We attempted to minimize this latter case by running our program on the failure IDs until the process no longer yielded significant returns. We used this database to create the above data visualization for 2018. 

We also obtained data describing how much money is owed, or currently outstanding, for fees and fines related to criminal cases for each branch of the courts, broken down by fiscal year. This information came from a public information request made by the national Fees and Fines Justice Center to the Rhode Island Judiciary.

Click here to access our data.