It’s time to stop hitting the snooze button when talking about our state budget and criminal justice reform. The insidious phenomenon of mass incarceration in this state requires immediate attention. Currently 1 in 4 children in Michigan live in poverty, and half of children have parents with criminal records. Evidence shows that people with criminal records have a harder time finding employment and obtaining housing among other negative economic outcomes. Once in the legal system, there are financial snares that keep people locked up for being poor, not their flight risk or danger to the community. These include fines and fees and secured money bail.
Negotiations are underway on the 2017 state budget, and lawmakers must look at the tools we now have at our disposal to reduce the jail and prison population. This includes focusing on treatment and prevention, diversion, and rehabilitation programs that can reduce costs while producing results that include incarcerated individuals returning to their families to be productive members of society.
In Ferguson, Missouri, a U.S. Justice Department report from March 2015 uncovered a rigged revenue system in which the corrections system relied on fines and fees to continue operating. It also showed that police administrators pressured local police officers to place as many fines as possible on individuals, who were disproportionately African-American, in order to raise funds for operation. This twisted incentive system, removed from concerns of public safety, was effectively designed to validate its own existence. This caused unequal harm for decades on the African-American population in the City of Ferguson and was a contributing factor in the racial tensions in that community.
While Ferguson was an extreme example of justice gone wrong, many places including Michigan also rely heavily on criminal justice system revenues for funding. Many in Michigan, including at the Supreme Court level, have been diligently working to modernize this issue with a report on fines and fees published in April 2015 to help build consensus on determining an individual’s ability to pay.
Unfortunately, without seriously examining the state’s corrections budget along with revenue sources, it is difficult to eliminate the problem of high and unnecessary court fines and fees. Cuts in revenue sharing continue to place pressure on localities to find alternative ways to raise revenue. Hopefully, we can develop a system where no one who is unable to pay is locked up, and fines and fees are not imposed primarily to generate revenue. Ultimately, a system that is adequately funded and prioritizes safety would lower costs by reducing the jail and prison population, and provide services like mental health and education resources to foster safe, healthy and productive communities.
— Seema Singh