Drug Offenders Walk Financial Obstacle Course
by Joshua Cannon and Tierra Perry
On a cool, spring evening, 17-year-old Justin sat with two of his friends in his 2002 Chevy Impala, which was parked outside of a party. They lit a joint. Moments later, a police officer tapped the back end of his flash light on the driver side window and shined a bright light on Justin’s face.
“The officer made us get on the ground while he searched the car,” Justin said. “I just did what he said because I wasn’t trying to be another one of those guys who gets shot by the police over petty stuff. I told him it was mine, and I was arrested and taken to 201 Poplar. My parents had to come pick me up and pay a possession fine.”
He appeared in juvenile court and was charged with a Class A misdemeanor for having 11 grams, less than half an ounce, of marijuana. With additional court costs and fines, the penalty can add up to anywhere between $1,000 and $1,600. His family became responsible for payments, according to Sheronda, Justin’s grandmother.
“We had to pay over $400 in court fees and fines,” she said. “They took away his license, too, since the drugs were found in his vehicle and in his possession. I made him get a job so he could pay it back over time, but I’m the one who had to get up and take him to work.”
Having to shuttle her grandson to and from work became difficult, and the entire situation weighed on the backs of his family, according to Darryl Herd, Justin’s father, who understood the costs from personal experience.
“I was disappointed in him and his actions,” Herd said. He knows firsthand the cost because he once sold pot and pills himself. “I’ve told him thousands of times that this isn’t the lifestyle he wants to live. Once they get you in [the system], it’s a never-ending cycle of paying for attorneys, court dates, possession fees and a lot of other things.”
Had Justin not been a 17-year-old first-time offender when he was arrested, he may have fallen into the systematic cycle of fines and fees his dad had faced. But even though he was fresh out of high school, he still discovered how fast court costs pile up.
Adults, even first-time offenders, don’t have it so easy. Nearly 60 percent of all federal drug offenders receive a mandatory minimum sentence, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. About 17 percent of Tennessee’s prison population is incarcerated for drug charges, according to the Shelby County Criminal Court Clerk’s 2012 Annual Report.
And with every step through the system, the fines and fees add up. More than $353,000 in drug fines was collected by the Shelby County criminal court in 2012, according to Richard DeSaussure, the court clerk.
“Tennessee has an unusual way of applying payments on fines, court costs and jail fees,” DeSaussure said. “With respect to fines, the fines are paid last after all other costs have been paid. ”
Excluding jail fees, an offender in the criminal court, no matter the case, will end up owing $1,800 at minimum, according to DeSaussure.
In 2013, the general sessions criminal court received $85,761 from drug offenders in the city of Memphis, and $10,493 from those in Shelby County. Drug offenders in Shelby County collectively paid $200,607 for drug treatment.
In the criminal court, some drug fines are mandatory, and some are discretionary, according to DeSaussure. Some sentences have a mandatory minimum jail time or a mandatory minimum fine. And there are few alternatives.
But one option is the Shelby County drug court. Founded by Judge Tim Dwyer in 1997, the court sought to cure drug abuse as an illness.
“Once I took the bench, it became readily apparent that if a person had a drug problem, just giving them jail time was not working,” Dwyer said. “It was like a revolving door. I think it’s a disease and it needs treatment.”
Memphian Maxine O’Neal discovered the drug court as a means to have her charges expunged after an incident when she was 18.
While driving down Germantown Parkway, blue lights appeared in the rearview mirror of her Lincoln Town Car. Her tags were expired, but she wasn’t nervous about that. O’Neal feared the police officer might smell the more than four grams of marijuana she had just bought from a friend.
“It wasn’t in a glass jar or anything,” O’Neal said.
The officer wrote her a ticket along with a date to appear in court. She later set the ticket aside and forgot about it, however. At 18 years old, O’Neal didn’t understand the severity of the situation.
“There was a warrant out for my arrest,” she said. “It became expensive. I had to hire a bondsman to turn myself in and bail myself out. I then had to hire a lawyer to get it off of my record.”
A year and a half later, she had paid more than $1,000 in fines and fees. The judge over her case ordered her to pay $100 for a one-time Justice Network Class through the drug court. After completing it, her charges were expunged.
Overall, O’Neal saved money through the drug court — and she wasn’t the only one. Drug courts across the United States spare clients about $3,000 to $13,000 per person. For every $1 invested in the alternative program, taxpayers save a minimum of $3.36 in avoided criminal court costs, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.
More than 200 offenders graduate from the Shelby County Drug Court each year, said Daniel Malone, a counselor for the program. The 12-month program costs $100 a month and generates $240,000 a year. Offenders pay a third of the costs, and the court pays the rest. If they miss a payment, the court is flexible and even provides extensions.
“These are folks who need time to get on their feet,” Malone said. “They aren’t used to having a job and being in an environment where they have to pay bills. $100 is a lot of money for some people. They just have to pay it by the time they graduate.”
Reaching graduation is a challenge for some. Many offenders accepted into the program lack the transportation to meet their requirements, according to Malone.
“We deal with a lot of people who want to do the program, but their transportation just isn’t there,” Malone said. “If your transportation is non-existent and you can’t make it to these programs that you are court-ordered to go to, it’s a problem.”
Trying to Cope
A lack of transportation hinders those weighed down by the fines, fees and requirements of the legal system. Low-income offenders often cannot pay. Without a way to travel to and from work, it becomes next to impossible to maintain a job.
When offenders can’t pay their fines, more fees are tacked on. And a Tennessee law enacted in 2011 now allows judges to suspend drivers’ licenses for any criminal offense rather than those just pertaining to driving offenses, according to Spickler.
“You think about how to get your life back together after you’ve been through the system,” Spickler said. “You have to get a job. You take care of yourself and loved ones. That gives you the ability to make better decisions. To do that, you have to have transportation and marketable skills. Requiring someone to pay $3,000 before all of those other things happen is putting the cart in front of the horse.”
Justin’s charges don’t appear on his record now that he is no longer a minor, but that benefit isn’t extended to adult drug offenders. For example, Kevin Gibson, who hasn’t been pulled over in three years, still lives with anxiety.
Not long after Gibson’s 18th birthday, he was smoking a joint with friends in a white Honda at a new neighborhood under construction. When they decided to leave at 2 a.m., there was nothing in sight except for vacant houses—until they turned the corner.
“As soon as we pulled out, there was a cop,” Gibson said. “His lights went on as soon as he saw us. I had a backpack with a grinder, a quarter ounce, two pipes and a bunch of rolling papers. I knew he had caught us.”
Gibson was sitting in the passenger seat when the police officer approached the vehicle. When the driver rolled down his window, smoke poured from the car into the still morning air.
“He kept saying, ‘Just do this shit in your house and we don’t care — just don’t bring it out here,’” Gibson said.
The police officer confiscated his backpack and searched it. To save his friends from trouble, Gibson, then 18, took the fall. The officer sent them home, and a groggy Gibson was handcuffed and placed in the back of a police car to sober up.
“Eventually, I asked if he was taking me to jail,” Gibson said. “He psychologically made me think I was going to jail. But he gave me a citation in lieu of arrest because I cooperated so well. I still had to go in and be booked and processed.”
Right after receiving his court date, Gibson hired a lawyer — who his friends helped him pay — for $700. When he arrived in court, he waited for five hours. His lawyer had previously told him that best-case scenario was a year’s probation. So when he met with Gibson outside of the courtroom, good news came as a surprise.
“My lawyer got down in my ear and said it was all expunged,” Gibson said. “It turns out that the stop the cop did was without probable cause. Just because a car is suspicious isn’t enough of a reason to pull a car over. But that is supposed to apply to the driver … Those rights weren’t supposed to apply to me. I didn’t even have to pay any court costs.”
Despite the break, however, Gibson hasn’t been able to put the incident behind him.
“I’m terrified [of getting pulled over],” he said. “It’s not on my record, but if a cop were to pull me over he could still see that it’s there. But since it wasn’t a conviction, it’s not looked at the same way. I’ve heard that if you have a marijuana charge on your record then they always have probable cause to search your car. That’s what I think every time [I drive].”
The probable-cause ruling in his case was atypical. Unlike Gibson, most drug offenders face a difficult road to getting their charges expunged. The fines and fees aren’t always visible and sometimes come as a surprise, according to Josh Spickler, the director of the Defender’s Resource Network.
“It’s not a transparent process,” Spickler said. “As your case is disposed, you get a bill. That’s the only time you can see what is costing you. It’s line after line of $2 to $12 fees. But the most costly thing is the jail fee. They charge you per day to be in jail. If you haven’t made bond, and it’s taken you three months to dispose of your case, you’re going to get a bill for $78 a day.”
Policy and Public Opinion
While, according to statistics from the Bureau of Justice, one in every five state prisoners is serving time for a drug offense, public opinion on marijuana has radically reversed. More than half of Americans believe marijuana should be legalized, the Pew Research Center found. Likewise, a 2014 Pew poll found that 76 percent of Americans believe people shouldn’t be imprisoned for possessing marijuana. In May, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam legalized the use of cannabis oil for limited medical purposes.
Still, possession of any amount of marijuana in Tennessee can land someone in jail for up to a year at minimum with a mandatory fine between $250 and $2,500. There’s no reason for it, said Morgan Fox, the communications manager for the Marijuana Policy Project. Fox, along with MPP, believes that possession of an ounce of marijuana should be lowered to a civil fine in the Volunteer State.
“Marijuana prohibition is one of the worst policy failures in recent history,” Fox said. “Fewer police resources are necessary to write tickets than to arrest people, but the real benefit is to marijuana consumers and their families. A criminal record can have life-long consequences and impact a person’s ability to find employment, get an education or even find affordable housing. No one deserves that level of punishment for using a substance that is safer than alcohol.”
Once a drug offender has made his way through the system, he becomes a second-class citizen in society’s eyes, according to Spickler. It’s a cycle that is difficult to escape, he said, and the fines just keep growing. He likens them to “play money.”
“The numbers are inflated,” Spickler said. “We have not assessed in a long time what we are charging people and what the collection rates are. From a public service standpoint, we should probably know what percentages are collected of the bills we issue.”
Payment plans are set in place for offenders, but the court clerks know that most of it won’t be collected, he said. Likewise, defendants know they can’t balance paying what they owe while they keep food on the table and a roof over their heads.
“We need to ask ourselves, what’s the point?” Spickler said. “Is it to offset some of the costs? Is it to punish? We need to have a conversation as a community and as a government about what the purpose of these fees are.”