Ramsey County took a bold step toward justice equality that others in Minnesota should follow.
The county eliminated some fees levied against people in jail or on probation. Such fees disproportionately affect low-income earners and their families, and people of color (“Ramsey County eliminates nearly $700,000 in criminal fines and fees,” April 15).
Rarely, if ever, does a judge announce a sentence of “time in prison, irreversible poverty and inescapable debt.” But too often, while not said out loud, that is the penalty handed down.
We should encourage re-entry into society and an opportunity to gain financial independence. That’s the right of the individual and saves taxpayer dollars.
Readers posted comments to this article stating people shouldn’t break the law if they don’t want to pay the price. Those comments might make sense if, in Minnesota, fees were equivalent from one person to another, fees didn’t disproportionately affect the poor who are already paying a higher effective tax rate than their wealthier neighbors, and if people of color didn’t receive harsher sentences and get sent to prison at much higher rates for committing the same crimes as whites.
This is what unequal justice looks like in Minnesota:
Two people pay the standard $300 a month probation fee. One person earns $85,000 a year and the other earns $12,000 a year. The same punishment costs one person 4% of his income and another 30% of his income.
Two people pay the standard $480 a month electronic monitoring fee. One lives in her house with a plump savings account and paying the fee has little effect on her finances. The other lives in a shelter and has no means to pay the fee resulting in additional jail time and a lifetime of debt.
Two people are arrested for identical crimes. One person pays bail, gets out of jail and goes back to work. The other person, who cannot afford bail, sits in jail, loses his job and incurs child-care expenses.
Two people receive identical speeding tickets. For one the fine is negligible; the cost will be covered after 2 hours of work. The second person needs to work 15 hours to pay for the ticket and then must choose between paying rent and risking more jail time or paying the ticket and risking her apartment.
Poor people cannot afford the best lawyers to reduce or eliminate sentences and keep their clients from accepting unfair plea bargains, sometimes for crimes they did not commit. In court, judges are more likely to send a person of color to jail than a white person for the same crime, even when both have similar or no criminal pasts.
For the same crime, one person goes free. The other is incarcerated, which creates a criminal record and eliminates his income and severely limits future income. Additionally, price gouging is common in jail. Inmates, mostly black and/or poor, pay more for goods than they do in the outside free market. For example, in 2019, Minnesota collected $600,000 from inmates for phone calls — 32% higher than in a free market.
Minnesota has long positioned itself as a progressive state. However, we cannot continue to make that claim when we have a justice system, penal code, government fees and taxes that disproportionately harm the poor and people of color.
Kudos to Ramsey County for taking some bold steps. Many more steps are needed.
Audrey Britton, of Plymouth, is a communications consultant.