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Poor punished for not paying citation fees, court fines

For years, politicians in South Carolina who have promised citizens to not raise taxes have been forced to increase fines and court fees as a means of running the state. Unfortunately, many of these fines and court fees result in jail time and probation when they can't be paid. Many people believe that these policies end up hurting members of the lower class.

For example, a 38-year-old man was punished by the state of Tennessee in 1999 for habitual truancy at school by not being allowed to drive. When the then-teenager drove anyway, he received two citations and more than $1,000 in fines. He couldn't pay and ended up serving time in prison. After prison, he was forced to pay a monthly visitation fee to a probation officer. Because he can't afford the fees, he has chosen not to drive, which makes working at a job difficult.

His story isn't unusual. People across the country who make mistakes are being given high-cost citations that result in clogged prisons and lengthy probations until the debts are paid. Though a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court ruling determined that it was unconstitutional for authorities to incarcerate citizens who don't have enough money to pay their fines, the practice continues. The long-term consequences for those who can't pay their fees and fines can be staggering, and law experts and legal groups are fighting to change what is happening to the poor across the country.

Members of the middle and lower classes who have civil or criminal charges against them must often choose between paying the fees and providing for their families. It's important for those accused of a crime to have fair representation in order to prevent excessive fees and fines that could result in prison time or probation. A criminal defense lawyer may be able to help by showing the court that their client doesn't have the means to pay the fees or fines imposed upon them, which might help to prevent incarceration occurring due to the 1983 ruling.

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