The case of a 15-year-old who shot her abusive dad shows the unbearable cost of self-defense

Whether you are guilty or innocent, entering the criminal justice system is expensive.
Whether you are guilty or innocent, entering the criminal justice system is expensive.
Image: Reuters/Czar Dancel
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

When Bresha Meadows was 14 years old, she killed her father—a man that her mother and siblings say had subjected the family to years of violent abuse. She spent the next nine months in jail. The Ohio teenager accepted a plea deal for involuntary manslaughter in May, and is scheduled to be released in two months to a residential treatment facility. But her trials—and those of her family—will not end there.

Meadows’s experience is part of a long and painful tradition in the US, in which survivors of domestic violence, especially black women, are criminalized and prosecuted. The criminal justice system did not help Meadows; instead, it re-victimized her.

Meadows had a pro-bono attorney, but she had to pay for two expert witnesses, who can cost between $10,000 and $20,000 a piece. Meadows’s initial mental health evaluation was around $10,000. And of course, her family had to come up with money to continue to live while attending court hearings and supporting their loved one. Meadows’s mother lost her job during the course of the case. And treatment at the private mental health facility where she will go next costs $70,000, according to Mariame Kaba, founder of Project NIA and co-organizer of the Free Bresha campaign.

“Being in the system, you are not just the one being punished.” Kaba says. “Your family is being punished. People fall into debt that they can’t ever crawl all the way out of.”

Thanks to organizing by people like Kaba, Meadows’s family has raised around $150,000 in crowdfunding. That’s well on the way to being able to pay for Bresha’s treatment, a testament to the well-organized campaign and to the passion the case has generated.

Meadows’s family is not alone in facing major long-term costs upon entry into the criminal justice system. The Ella Baker Center’s 2015 examination of 712 formerly incarcerated persons in 14 states found that 48% of those surveyed could not afford the costs that came with conviction. Debts incurred for court-related fines averaged $13,607—a huge sum, considering many of those surveyed had household incomes of less than $15,000 a year. Almost half of families with incarcerated family members struggled to meet basic food needs.

The inflation of court fees and fines can be traced back to the late 1990s and early 2000s, according to Alexes Harris, a sociology professor at the University of Washington and author of A Pound of Flesh: Monetary Sanctions as Punishment for the Poor. “Jurisdictions overburdened with increased populations on probation and in jail and in prison started to turn to the defendants themselves to shoulder the cost of processing them and incarcerating them,” Harris says. “And it’s a brilliant economic model if the defendants have the money.”

But of course, the vast majority of defendants can’t afford to pay expensive fines and fees. People who enter the criminal justice system are disproportionately poor, homeless, mentally ill, or suffering from addiction. There haven’t been many long-term studies of the cost-effectiveness of court fees, but Harris says she looked at results in one Washington State county. Based on her research, she said, incarcerating poor people, with all the attendant administration and debt collection bureaucracies, did not in fact pay for itself.

Fines and fees may not pay for the costs of administrating them—but they do serve as a form of de facto punishment, often before defendants have been convicted of any wrongdoing. Teenager Kalief Browder was infamously charged $3,000 bail after being accused of stealing a backpack in 2010. Browder’s family couldn’t pay the fine, and Browder, being innocent, refused to take a plea deal. He spent three years on Rikers Island awaiting trial before prosecutors finally dismissed the charges. He was released at last, but was unable to recover, and hung himself.

Browder’s story is particularly horrifying, but the day-to-day reality of the criminal justice system systematically disenfranchises and abuses anyone who lacks the money to make bail. “Research shows that people who spend time in jail prior to adjudication have higher guilty rates,” Harris says. “The jury sees them or the judge sees them as if they’re behind bars, breathes in that they’re a threat, and then they’re more likely to be convicted of whatever they’re accused of.”

Impoverished people also face disproportionate punishment if they are convicted of a crime. “If you don’t have a working home phone and monthly payment for electronic home monitoring, you can’t go on electronic home monitoring, so that means you stay in jail,” Harris says. After a conviction—and even, in some jurisdictions, after being declared innocent—people are handed a list of court costs, incarceration costs, and fees. If they can’t fork over the money, Harris says, people may be served with nonpayment warrants, and may even be taken back to jail.

There are several changes that could help address the problem. Harris argues that at the time of sentencing, courts should have ability-to-pay hearings, where judges determine what amount people convicted of crimes have the wherewithal to pay, or if they can pay anything at all. People on Social Security or disability payments should be automatically exempted; others should have any payments tailored to their income.

More generally, defendants need more resources. John Pfaff, author of Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration—And How to Achieve Real Reform, has pointed out that in real terms, money for indigent defense has plummeted nationwide, making it harder for those accused of crimes to defend themselves. “The prosecution gets everything they need,” in terms of experts and resources,” Kaba said. “Usually on the other side you don’t get anything if you don’t have the money. It’s all the justice money can buy.”

Bresha Meadows, Harris argues, “could have easily gone down for murder and been tried as an adult.” She received a less draconian outcome because activists like Kaba raised money on her behalf and generated publicity about her case. But often, defendants with limited resources are faced with a choice between spending thousands or tens of thousands of dollars on a vigorous defense—or losing their cases and then being hit with exorbitant fees anyway. Meadows’s story is a reminder that our criminal justice system is structured to punish the poor for being poor—with little regard for their guilt or innocence.