A Troubling Trend

posted by on Wednesday, May 07, 2008

It has long been recognized that the purpose of a sentence in the criminal justice system is to provide maximum opportunity for the rehabilitation of the defendant and to protect the community from further offenses by the defendant and others. Along that line, Congress has delineated four purposes of sentencing: (1) retribution; (2) deterrence; (3) protection of the public; and (4) rehabilitation of the defendant. 18 U.S.C. 3553(a)(2). Noticeably absent from any of the stated purposes of sentencing is the need to generate revenue for the government.

Unfortunately, an ever-increasing trend has developed turning the criminal justice system into a revenue generating business designed to fund law enforcement efforts, judicial salary increases, court-appointed attorney fee increases, and other financial needs of the criminal justice system. Criminal defendants, often those with the least financial resources in our community, are being forced to reimburse county jails for the days of confinement to the tune of $70/day if not more. (A single occupancy night at the Days Inn goes for $60 and comes with a queen bed, cable television, private bathroom, and continental breakfast). Law enforcement agencies are charging criminal defendants $40/hour for "officer time" to reproduce videotapes pursuant to public records requests. Those same departments then turn around and submit requests for restitution in the criminal case for "officer time" at the rate of $20/hour for each participating officer, operation time and mileage of squad cars, breath test tubes and evidence collection kits in OWI investigations, among other things. Legislation is being passed and budgets are being balanced at the expense of criminal defendants. Just this year our State Judiciary and court-appointed attorneys received albeit well-deserved pay increases, but these increases were funded by corresponding increases in criminal fines and court costs. The trend is to increase punishments to fund budgetary needs. For example, an individual sentenced on an OWI First Offense in the State of Iowa will be court ordered, on average, to pay the following: $1,250.00 mandatory minimum fine + 32% surcharge to the State of Iowa $400 + $300 probation supervision fee + $10 DARE Surcharge + $325 OWI First Offense Program fee + Approximately $100 or more for restitution to police department for time spent on arrest + $100 court costs for a grand total of $2,485.00. A defendant's failure to timely pay these financial obligations results in a violation of the defendants probation and the courts can and do impose jail sentences for failure to meet financial obligations. By the way, if the person desires to obtain a work permit to allow them to drive to and from work so that they can make payments on their financial obligations they will have to pay an additional $200 to the DOT + $60/month for ignition interlock device + whatever rate they can get for SR22 high risk insurance. Contrast the costs of an OWI for a minute to the offense of Lascivious Acts with a Minor (inappropriate sexual touching of a minor), also a Serious Misdemeanor, and arguably a more serious and disturbing offense than OWI. A similarly situated defendant charged with this offense would typically be sentenced to the minimum fine is $315 + 32% surcharge $100.80 + $300 probation supervision fee + $100 court costs, for a grand total of $515.80! Law enforcement does not submit bills for time spent investigating these types of offenses.

The foregoing begs the question, if the purposes of a sentence are to provide retribution, deterrence, protection of the public, and rehabilitate the defendant why do we impose much more severe financial sanctions on drunk driving then we do a child molester? Simply put . . . the almighty dollar. The perception from those in power is that individuals charged with OWI have the financial resources to pay the increased costs. They also have a better track record of meeting the financial obligations. Thus, the State has seized the opportunity to increase its revenues at the expense of criminal defendants while ignoring why a sentence is imposed. Generating revenue for the government does nothing to maximize rehabilitation and protect the public. If anything it is counterproductive to those efforts. Individuals strapped for money are much more likely to commit additional offenses whether due to increased stress levels resulting from depleted financial resources, failure to obtain necessary but costly treatment due to court imposed financial obligations taking precedence, or driving without a valid license to maintain employment necessary to provide for dependents.

The troubling trend of funding budgetary needs at the expense of criminal defendants without due consideration of the purposes of sentencing is resulting in the bastardization of the criminal justice system. When law enforcement profits from prosecutions and punishments are increased to fund budgetary shortfalls, the distinction between true justice and "justice for profit" is erased. Public confidence in the criminal justice system erodes and its purposes cease to be advanced. It is time that we demand expulsion of the money changers from the courthouses and return to a time where the purposes of sentencing and the individuality of each defendant are first and foremost.