My View: Justice system amplifies poverty cycle
The economic gap between our richest residents and everyone else has widened to unprecedented levels. Although our criminal justice system cannot correct this challenge on its own, it can take steps to ensure it does not unnecessarily compound the impacts of inequality.
The relationship between poverty and crime is complex, and it is undeniable that poverty makes it much harder for a person to successfully reenter society after completing a sentence. Therefore, it is important that we be thoughtful about the application of financial penalties which make it harder for a person to become a contributing member of our community.
In over 20 years of front-line experience in our criminal justice system, I have seen the role poverty plays in determining the outcomes for defendants — particularly when it comes to those convicted of low-level offenses.
Defendants convicted of low-level crimes often are required to pay fines and fees as a condition of their probation. For those unable to pay the fees, the impact can be significant even after a sentence is complete.
Why does this matter? Long after offenders leave the system, they may do exactly the things society has asked of them — apply for a job, an apartment, or a student loan.Yet a judgment from an unpaid fine levied years before can be, and often is, a barrier to accomplishing those things.
As a prosecutor I believe in accountability and understand why courts make these decisions. But reality tells us that these decisions may be making the problem worse.
As both the Brennan Center and Street Roots have reported, unpaid fines and fees can follow a criminal defendant who has otherwise successfully completed supervision for years, only making it harder to successfully reenter our community.
This is particularly true for low-income defendants, who are disproportionately affected by these fines and fees because of their inability to pay. Too often they wind up trapped in an endless cycle of debt they cannot escape.
Ideally, probation should both reinforce accountability for those convicted of a crime and help stabilize them for a life outside the system. We should hold defendants accountable for successfully completing the material parts of a probationary sentence — such as drug and alcohol treatment and paying restitution to victims of crime.
But compounding the cycle of poverty by pursuing judgments for court-ordered fines and fees levied against low-income defendants is a disservice to us all. It is time to revisit this practice and focus instead on rehabilitation and productive reentry into our community.
Changes in sentencing practices are best achieved at the state level through the Legislature, which is responsible for setting consistent statutory policy for the entire state. Our next district attorney must be able to work with those from other counties across the state to shift perspectives on this critical but often forgotten component of our justice system.
I am the only candidate in this race who has committed to working with my fellow district attorneys from around the state to create change — rather than proposing our county go it alone. After all, low-income defendants across this state, not just Multnomah County, are deserving of reforms in how we assess and collect fines and fees.
Ethan Knight is a candidate for Multnomah County District Attorney.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.