An indigent Ramsey County defendant may be too poor to pay for a lawyer but is still expected to pay hundreds of dollars in jail and probation fines and fees — creating a vicious cycle of debt for many.
But experts with a national financial firm told the Ramsey County Board on Tuesday that the county could eliminate more than $2 million in criminal justice fines and fees annually levied for services from probation monitoring to drug testing to making jailhouse phone calls.
The consultants from PFM spent months sifting through the county’s finances, examining all the ways that people entangled in the criminal justice system are asked to pay.
“A lot of folks never get charged with a crime, and we’re already punishing them and taking money from them,” said Board Chairman Jim McDonough, lamenting the nearly $6 finance charge to deposit money into a jail canteen account, the $7 charge to make a 15-minute phone call from behind bars and the nearly $8 charge to have a video visit with an inmate.
Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt said it almost felt like price-gouging the most captive of customers.
Hennepin County also has embarked on an examination of fees and fines across all departments, including education, employment, health, housing, income, justice and transportation. It anticipates presenting some findings and recommendations to the County Board next spring, said Assistant County Administrator Mark Thompson.
“We have fees for licensing and for all kind of things,” Thompson said. “We want to look at all those things comprehensively.”
The Ramsey board did not take any official action Tuesday, but commissioners said the criminal justice system should focus on rehabilitating people, overcoming addiction, reconnecting with family and rejoining productive society. They said it shouldn’t be a moneymaker or cause more harm to individuals already struggling to get by.
Eliminating fees could create a hole of up to $2 million in Ramsey County’s $742 million budget. That could be made up through property tax increases or cost savings elsewhere, and commissioners asked staffers to bring back some options.
“We invest tens of millions of dollars in keeping families together and putting residents first,” said Commissioner Rafael Ortega. “We can’t let 1 or 2 million dollars keep us from completing the puzzle.”
Ramsey County was one of three jurisdictions selected nationwide by PFM’s Center for Justice and Safety Finance to look at ways to reduce government reliance on criminal fines and fees as sources of revenue. It was chosen in a competitive application process for its early work in eliminating some fees, including a $25 jail booking fee. Counties around Dallas and Nashville-Davidson, Tenn., also were selected.
Government reliance on fines and fees first drew national scrutiny in the wake of the August 2014 shooting of an unarmed black teen in Ferguson, Mo. A 2015 U.S. Department of Justice report on Ferguson concluded that its law enforcement practices were “shaped by the city’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs.”
Ramsey County may be the latest in a growing number of jurisdictions across the United States that are rethinking fines and fees, including high markups on jail phone calls, canteen items and other basics. Both New York City and San Francisco jails now allow free phone calls.
Still, the state of Minnesota sets the parameters around many fines and fees and keeps much of what is collected. “The primary obstacle is the limited authority the county has over this,” PFM senior managing consultant Sarah Schirmer told the board Tuesday.
In 2018, individuals in Ramsey County paid $12.8 million in criminal fines and fees; about half of that went to the state and a quarter to cities.
The county had control of about $2.9 million levied as probation supervision fees, jail facility fees, law library fees and fees charged by outside vendors who run the jail canteen and phone systems.
In addition to examining the books, Schirmer and others met with people detained in the Ramsey County workhouse to hear firsthand how fines and fees affect their lives. Those anecdotes sparked a flurry of responses and comments from commissioners.
One woman told PFM staffers that she hadn’t spoken with family members in three months because she didn’t have money for a phone call.
Another mother spoke of the difficult choices she’s been forced to make.
“I am just like any other mother trying to feed and clothe my children, send them to school and pay my family’s bills,” she said. “But I have to make decisions about what I can buy them because I’m also trying to pay off my fines and fees.”
The county can roll back fees and renegotiate contracts with vendors, though it would likely take a few years. Several commissioners expressed strong support and directed staffers to continue their work.
“We call it a correction system, but the model has been based on punishment,” McDonough said. “Fines and fees have almost become a punishment, and we’ve justified it by spending it on good things.”
Commissioner Mary Jo McGuire was a bit more cautious, questioning the wisdom of completely eliminating the county’s criminal justice fees.
“I am not so sure I want to do that across the board. I kind of like a sliding scale,” McGuire said. “People don’t want to have to pay for everyone else’s mistakes.”