…NPR found that in the vast majority of America, defendants can be charged for a public defender, for their own parole and probation, the cost of a jury trial, and their stay in a jail cell. Some jurisdictions have even found ways to charge people “booking fees” after an arrest, even if the arrest never results in a criminal charge, a policy recently upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. My favorite example of this nonsense, though it isn’t in the NPR report, is crime labs. Believe it or not, in some jurisdictions, crime labs are paid fees only if their analysis leads to a conviction. (The fees are then assessed to defendants.) Think about the incentives at work there.
Failure to pay these fines results in — you guessed it — more fines, plus interest. If the debt is sent to a collection agency, those fees get tacked on, too. Ultimately, inability to pay the fines can land you in a jail cell. Which is why we’re now seeing what are effectively debtors’ prisons, even though the concept is technically illegal.
With driving infractions, a failure to pay fines can also result in a suspension of your license. In areas of the country where a car is really the only way to get to your job, to the doctor, or to pick up your kids, many low-income people have no choice but to continue driving without a license, an offense that can also land them in jail.