Study looks at high impact of court fees on parolees

CINCINNATI -- Several years ago, Tracy Griffin spent 30 days in jail after pleading guilty to theft charges.

She's been struggling to pay off her more than $3,000 bill for court costs, fees and restitution ever since.

"I've been on probation for five years," Griffin said. "The fine was tremendously high where I couldn't pay it."

She said she wasn't given any options.

"It's pay it off, or go back to jail," she said.

Ebony Ruhland, an assistant professor of criminology at the University of Cincinnati's College of Criminal Justice, is leading a multi-state study looking at how high court costs and fees impact people on probation and parole.

The study is funded with a $2.6 million grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

"The purpose of our study is really to understand the issue," Ruhland said. "Because we know that it's an issue, but we don't know the magnitude or the size of the issue."

She said the study will examine a variety of factors such as the amounts of court costs, racial and income disparities and the ability of some defendants to pay.

"In some states the debt just accumulates because if they don't pay one month, that debt doesn't go away," Ruhland said. "So, it just gets bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger."

"It is a significant issue," said Dorianne Mason, director of the Second Chance Project at the Ohio Justice and Policy Center in downtown Cincinnati.

"It is a barrier and a hurdle that people have to overcome to really move forward with their lives," Mason said. "She said many people like Griffin can't afford to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars."

"They will owe $700, $1,200," Mason said. "And, we're talking about people who make approximately $1,200 a month."

Ruhland has done previous research on court costs in the criminal justice system. She said in addition to looking at the impact on individuals, they want to see how families are impacted.

"We are going to be interviewing family members as well so that we can understand how these fines and fees trickle down into the family," Ruhland said.

Many times family members become burdened with helping with fines or other related expenses, she said.

Hamilton County Municipal Court Judge Fanon Rucker said the Supreme Court of Ohio has emphasized that judges are to consider the ability of defendants to pay court costs and fines.

"Many times I'll actually ask them, 'If you don't want to pay this, or you're not able to, would you like to perform community service?'" Rucker said.

Hamilton County charges $110 in court costs per case, and defendants may have to pay additional fees associated with their charges. But, defendants can ask the judge to waive the fees.

"Under the court of appeals authority, the only time we can waive those is if at the time of assessing those fees," Rucker said. "There is a request and a review by us to determine whether a person is not able, whether they are indigent."

However, he said defendants or their attorneys rarely ask for a hearing on the ability to pay fees.

"I've been on the bench for 11 years, and I'd say five, six, 10 times maybe," Rucker said.

Rucker and Mason said most people don't know they can ask to waive fees if they can't pay them.

"The judges still have authority over that amount of money owed, " Mason said. "But, most people don't know that."

Meanwhile, Mason was able to help Griffin with her court bills. The court waived everything.

"It's like I'm starting over," Griffin said. "Like I'm getting a new beginning."

States committed to participate in the study so far include Indiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Texas, Arizona and North Carolina. Ruhland is leading a team of professors and researchers from the University of Michigan, University of Minnesota, Rutgers University, Drexel University, Indiana University-Bloomington and Northeastern University.

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