Bling, Bling, as the Gavel Rings

            “Money is the world’s curse!”  “May the Lord smite me with it – and may I never recover!”  So the conversation went between Patrick and Tevia in the widely popular film, Fiddler on the Roof.  While amusing, this exchange reflects a fundamental truth about modern society; that is, that money is a generally desired element in human life.  It is sought after by the poor in order to obtain food and shelter, by the intellectuals for funding research, by the wealthy for enhancing their comfortable lives, and by the politicians for power, prestige and influence.  It therefore follows that, in the criminal justice system, too, money must be object of desire by that institution.

Many people who are charged with criminal activity find themselves offered a deal by the prosecution: plead guilty, and the accused individual has the opportunity to escape jail or prison time.  In such agreements, however, there is invariably a price to be paid in exchange for this freedom.  This price can come in many forms, but fines are an almost universal factor in such arrangements.  The fines can range from the hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars, and indeed, can be almost as crippling financially for the accused as being imprisoned.  While this system of ‘toleration’ is for many defendants preferable to incarceration, it does nevertheless raise an often unasked question: where does all the money go?


             Beginning with what might be termed the most easily justifiable of the various fines that are imposed by Utah Courts, restitution is a regularly ordered fine intended to compensate victims of criminal activity.  Nominally collected from a convicted defendant directly by the courts – and on occasion an institution referred to as the State Debt Collection Agency – the sums of money are ostensibly handed over to the alleged victim.  While this might on the surface appear as a noble endeavor, nobody works for free, and the courts have learned a means to exploit this gesture of justice.  They simply charge interest.

The application of interest has long been a sensitive topic: the notion that one can make money by simply loaning it (i.e. moneylenders), has even been criticized in the bible.  All the same, interest collected from debts willingly entered into is wholly different from and unique to those debts which are imposed by a court for the purpose of restitution.  While the ideal of restoring innocent victims to the same status they held prior to some criminal indignity is of course honorable, the notion of profiting from the suffering of a victim seems at best questionable.

Nevertheless, Utah Courts and prosecuting agencies have managed to bring this practice of interest into the system of criminal justice..  While the intricacies and tedium of finances within the justice system make it impossible to be certain, one matter remains clear: courts rarely seem inclined to waive interest fees, suggesting a very partial disposition towards the collection of those fees.

Public Defender Fees

One common misconception many defendants hold when charged with their first criminal case is that appointed attorneys are provided free of charge.  Whilst the U.S. Constitution does indeed guarantee all citizens the right to legal representation following an accusation of criminal behavior, it does nothing to prevent courts assigning fines to compensate that representation following a conviction.

In short, when a defendant represented by a public defender is found to be guilty, the courts will regularly impose fines to pay the costs for that representation.  These fines can range into the hundreds of dollars – on top of any other imposed fines – and generally reflect the costs to a city/county in providing for a contracted public defender.  Like all other court fines, if a defendant fails to pay the compensation to the court for a public defender after a conviction, they face potentially severe consequences, ranging from harassment by collection agencies to the issuance of warrants for probation violations.

Statutory Fines and Court Surcharges

Utah State Law allows the courts to impose fines of varying amounts on defendants who are convicted of criminal behavior.  Fines can range from the hundreds to the tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the degree of the charge for which a defendant is convicted (see this fine calculator).  Surprisingly, Utah Courts rarely impose the maximum amount of the fine, often waiving at least part of the fine to account for community service, treatment courses or time served in custody.

Even so, Utah Courts are entitled to apply not only the full weight of the statutory fines against a convicted defendant, but also a surcharge of up to ninety percent.  In short, a court may effectively double a fine amount against a defendant as a matter of course.   Should a court feel so inclined, for example, a simple traffic ticket could be racked up to as much as $1,425.00, while a murder charge could require a fine as high as $19,000.00.  Nearly half of these enormous fines can be attributed to the so-called ‘Court Surcharge.’

These enormous exchanges of currency are distributed in a number of ways.  Occasionally, the fines are used directly to finance – or at least buttress – the operational costs of a prosecutor’s office.  More frequently, the fines are used to shore up the expenses of a court, as the existence of a potential 90% surcharge to the fine implies.  In short, and like many other institutions, the fines collected from defendants are re-distributed for the purpose of self-sustenance.  From judges to court clerks; from prosecutors to bailiffs; from technicians to custodians – all of these require funding to operate the criminal justice system, and all ultimately rely heavily on the statutory fines and surcharges collected by courts as part of plea arrangements.

Ultimately, nobody convicted of a criminal offense could reasonably expect to emerge from such a situation unscathed.  Justice demands penance, and in today’s society, that penance is regularly expressed in the form of fines.  From interest on compensation to victims to court surcharges, the irony of this method is clear: fines applied to defendants are contributing to the costs for their own prosecution.  One is left to wonder how the State would react if criminal activity actually declined – would those employed in the prosecutorial system, responsible for so much of their livelihood, simply be relieved of their positions?  Would laws tighten to compensate for the absence of criminal activity?  It is an intriguing question, but one which might only be addressable in the distant future, and with the benefit of historical hindsight.

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