Advocates hope bill will reduce burden of court debt on low-income offenders


PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Tarah Dorsey said it was a lie about her name that started a vicious cycle.

That lie was to a police officer and was considered a misdemeanor crime.

“So I got arrested,” she said. “Spent 90 days in jail. And court fines. For telling a lie.”

Dorsey, now 40, has been paying court-related fines and fees since she was 18. She said she’s been paying off her most recent debts since 2011. She now owes about $900 and is whittling it down with monthly installments of $20.

Before she figured out a payment plan, Dorsey said she was confused by the system. Initially, she said she wasn’t sure what would happen at a so-called “ability to pay” hearing where defendants discuss the status of their court debts with a judge. When she knew she couldn’t pay, she skipped the hearing.

“I was in fear,” she said. “I don’t have the money. I don’t want to go to court, not knowing I wasn’t going to get arrested.”

It was missing her court date, not her inability to pay, that landed her in cuffs.

It’s the typical procedure: if a defendant misses an ability to pay hearing, an arrest warrant can be issued. By statute, those picked up on a failure to appear warrant can only be held in prison for 48 hours, according to the Rhode Island Judiciary.

A judiciary spokesman said last month a combined 95,411 people owed court costs and fines to the Superior and District Courts. In the past year, 2,924 bench warrants were issued for people failing to appear at their court hearings.

Judiciary spokesman Craig Berke said court officials don’t track how many of those 2,924 people were actually incarcerated. Berke said warrants are canceled when the police pick up an individual or when the person walks involuntarily.

Jordan Seaberry, director of public policy and advocacy at the Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence in Providence, said the current system is having a major impact on low-income offenders.

“Right now we know that folks who have higher incomes, folks that have greater sources of wealth — they’re able to pay their court fines without any real issue, they can pay the costs without any burden,” Seaberry said.

“Folks who don’t have that same access to wealth are being trapped in these cycles of debt, are being incarcerated based on failure to appear at payment dates — and getting warrants sent out for them based on economic circumstances?” he said. “Then that’s a flawed system.”

Seaberry and the institute are supporting pending legislation at the General Assembly that would strengthen the court’s responsibility to conduct a financial assessment of defendants. The financial assessment mandate was part of a law enacted in 2008, but Seaberry argues it’s not happening.

“Some of the reforms in there were taking place but as far as being able to abate costs for defendants we just weren’t seeing it happen on the ground,” he said.

Dorsey said she’s unaware of ever having her finances assessed by a judge. She believes her life would have turned out differently if a judge has assessed her finances before assigning her a fine back when she was 18.

At a House Judiciary Committee hearing in February on the financial assessment bill, Elizabeth Suever, a lobbyist for the judiciary, said defendants who have the ability to pay should pay, saying the people in question have been found guilty of their crimes. She also argued that judges were already conducting financial assessments as required.

Separately, Berke told Eyewitness News the judiciary did not support the proposed legislation because “it seems to require the courts to collect a lot of personal financial information about litigants and to make that information part of the case file or risk having the court order to pay fines/fees invalidated.”

According to Berke, in the 2017-18 fiscal year the courts collected more than $5.3 million in court fines and fees, plus an additional $2.1 million in restitution. He said most fines and fees make their way into the state’s General Fund.

While the state budget office has not calculated a cost associated with the proposed bill, a House spokesman said judiciary officials testified that it would have a direct impact on their budget.

Seaberry said money shouldn’t be a factor.

“Nobody would argue that we should fund our judiciary on the backs of the poor,” Seaberry said. “No judge would say that, no prosecutor would say that, and certainly no defendant would say that.”

The bill has not yet been scheduled for a committee vote.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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