Imagine you are late to work. And in your rush to get to the office on time you run a red light. A cop sees the infraction, and to make matters worse you weren’t wearing your seatbelt and didn’t have your driver’s license or proof of insurance.
Now imagine you have to go to traffic court but your hearing keeps getting postponed. In a year, you may go to court ten times. Finally the judge dismisses two of your tickets, because you have a license and insurance, and fines you $100 each for running the red light and not wearing your seat belt, plus court costs.
You go to the clerk’s window to pay and your bill is over $6,000. You find out you were charged for 40 court dates. You actually only went to court 10 times, but they charged you four times on each date because you had four tickets.
This is absurd, right? Well, change traffic violation to felony and it’s not only absurd it is also the reality of being accused of a felony in Rhode Island.
NBC 10 recently reported that felons owe hundreds of thousands in court fines. But what they don’t tell you is how our fines got so high. I say our fines because I am a felon who came out of prison owing more than $6,000 in court fines.
In 2001, I got myself in trouble and was charged with about 15 crimes. I was guilty of most and do not argue that I should not have been charged or sentenced to prison. I should have been. They separated my charges for their reasons and I will not speculate why. They handed down five indictments, each with two or more charges. My case was dragged on for more than a year. I had at least one court date a month. Several times I didn’t even see a judge. My public defender would tell me my case was continued and give me my next court date.
Eventually, I was sentenced and had to go to prison. I was released in 2008 on parole. My charges were first degree robbery and breaking and entering, several of each. Even though I went into prison an eighth grade dropout and came out just shy of an associate’s degree, it was very tough to find construction work. My fault, I did the crime.
But I was also starting over with more than $6,000 in debt. Why? Remember all those court dates, at several of which I didn’t even see the judge? Well, every day I was scheduled for court, I was charged five times. Even when I did see the judge, I only stood in front of her once while she read aloud five case numbers.
When I did find a job, I needed to take time off once a week for a urine test, every two weeks for my parole office appointment and once every 90 days for my payment review. Sometimes it would happen that in one week I would need time for all three if they all landed in that week. How many employers want an employee who has my background and needs to regularly leave early or miss a whole day?
Not many. And that’s my problem, right? Wrong. I lost a couple of jobs but I still had to eat and pay rent. I collected public assistance on taxpayer dollars. I missed court a couple times because if I went and missed work I would lose my job. A warrant was issued, I was picked up, always on a Friday night and spent the weekend in jail – at a cost to Rhode Island of approximately $164 per day, plus the cost for the sheriff and all the taxpayer expenses.
A lot of taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars has gone into ensuring I pay fines five times what they should be. And the harder I try to do the right thing, the harder I have been held down.
I do agree that people getting out of prison should be monitored but the fact is the majority of people in prison are getting out and will spread their roots and wings through every community in our state. We need to figure out a way to better monitor felons to make it easier to find and keep a job. We need to develop a way to monitor felons that allows them to find and keep a job. Court fines also need to be reevaluated to make them more fair and affordable for people starting over.
This post is published as part of the Prison Op/Ed Project, an occasional series authored by CCRI sociology students who are incarcerated at the Rhode Island Adult Correctional Institute.