STAR TRIBUNE Opinion | New Voices: The piling-on effect of fees in criminal justice

The shadows of prison bars against a grey concrete floor

For those trying to re-enter society, a few dollars here and a few hundred there add up to a barrier.

Originally published in the Star Tribune, MARCH 30, 2022 — Written by Tim Dorway


Sit in a bathtub with 40 corks and try holding them down all at once. Just try it. What happens? You get them all under the surface, shift ever so gingerly, and one breaks the surface, forcing you to adjust again to get it back in place. Pretty quickly, you again have 40 corks all afloat.

Frustrating? Of course. Maddening? Absolutely. Make you want to give up and just drain the tub? For sure.

The analogy is silly. But for those re-entering our communities from the criminal legal system, it is a reality, except those men and women are not dealing with corks. Instead, those “corks” are fees, and those fees work as barriers to so many opportunities.

Since December 2021 I have worked at Tech Dump (now Repowered), an electronics recycler whose dual mission is to create jobs for formerly incarcerated people like myself and to keep e-waste out of landfills. We had the privilege and honor of meeting with elected officials during Second Chance Day at the Capitol. Our focus this year was bringing some of the realities of those fees to the conversation. We were able to spend time with Sens. John Marty and John Hoffman and express the frustrations and concerns of our team members — team members who are now back in the collective tub of society and trying to hold all those corks under the waterline.

First, let’s clarify the difference between fees and fines:

  • Fines are adjudicated as a part of the criminal legal system, a part of the consequence of our actions, determined and assigned by the judge.
  • Fees, on the other hand, are meant to increase revenue for the county or public entity. They don’t have anything to do with the criminal legal system. Yet they are being tossed out like candy off a Homecoming parade float, essentially extending their sentence beyond what was ordered by a judge.

Here is a list of the fees our current team members are being charged. It is not comprehensive, but it is a reality.

  • Ankle bracelet fee ($7 per day).
  • Intensive supervised release fee ($20 per day).
  • Back taxes — accrued penalties and fees while incarcerated and unable to make payments.
  • Supervision fee ($300).
  • Transfer fee (each time you move, the new county charges you a fee).
  • Urinalysis fee ($90, whether or not a client is required to do a urinalysis).
  • License reinstatement fee (over $600).
  • Polygraph fee (averages $300 per test).
  • County jail fees (depending on the county of commit).
  • Breathalyzer monthly fee (for driving).
  • Internet monitoring fees ($33 per device per month).

One of the goals in our re-entry work readiness program is to “Live Hope.” It is an area where we talk about restorative justice principles, about gaining confidence, pride and hope for ourselves and our loved ones and communities. We celebrate things like sobriety anniversaries, reuniting with our families, graduating from parole or treatment, volunteering at church or in the community, mentoring others in our program and in the community, or going and buying a birthday gift for our children for the first time since our incarceration.

Every single fee on the list above takes away an opportunity for living that hope. It forces someone trying to do her or his best to take a step back and be reminded how easy it is to get behind in a time when getting ahead is so critical. We experience success and confidence when we build it, not when the unnecessary financial barrier of these fees reminds us of who we were or what we did at every turn.

Our Legislature has the opportunity to act now, to have the courage to take money from a $9 billion dollar surplus and put it in the proper areas so that these overwhelming, smothering and unhelpful fees can be lifted. Let the criminal legal system handle the accountability. Stop allowing local entities and programs to pile on at a time when we need to build hope, give hope and live hope.

We are all defined by our futures.

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