When Rachel Coll was released from North Central Regional Jail, she had served time, but her debt to society was still in front of her. Coll faced what many incarcerated people do upon re-entry into the community; her court fees and fines totaled almost $45,000. She owed $30,000 in fines for two DUIs and another $15,000 for court fees, two house arrests and rehabilitation.
Data compiled from 13 out of 50 states by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights shows that people leaving prison owe on average $13,607 in fines and fees. Those fines and fees can seem an almost insurmountable obstacle to getting back on their feet.
In order to successfully re-enter their communities, formerly incarcerated women need to get jobs, for which the application process usually requires an official ID. To get a valid ID or driver’s license, they have to pay their fees and fines, and this is where many former prisoners face a tremendous obstacle, because to pay their fines, they need jobs.
U.S. Probation Officer, Kara Dills, who works with women coming from federal facilities, said that most women she supervises do not have driver’s licenses due to too many collateral consequences of their crimes. West Virginia has two federal correctional facilities for women as well as the state jails and prisons. In the federal system, everyone has a $100 special assessment fee for each crime of which they’re convicted. State charges have more court costs and fees associated with each charge. These fees and fines are supposed to be paid at sentencing, but many do not pay because they don’t have the means.
One of the most challenging aspects of re-entry into the community after prison can be simply getting a driver’s license. Women must pay all fees and fines before obtaining one. According to Legal Aid of West Virginia, women canpetition the Circuit Court for a hardship waiver and start a payment plan, as long as they’re at least 12 months behind on payments.
Another issue that women face when trying to get their licenses back is tracking down documents. Because a large portion of women coming out of prison in West Virginia were in the federal facilities, Alderson Federal Prison Camp or Hazleton Federal Correctional Institution, they may not have birth certificates they can obtain locally. Dills said that women would have to go online and track down their birth certificates, which is a problem if they can’t afford to order them or don’t have digital sophistication.
Dills said transportation is so important for employment in a rural state that a lot of women get into more trouble.
“Due to the lack of reliable transportation, most of the time they have accumulated hundreds of dollars in fines from driving without a license,” Dills said.
According to the West Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, for a first or second offense of driving without a license, a fine between $100 and $500 dollars is assessed. After a third offense, a fine between $150 and $500 dollars is assessed with a penalty of between 30 to 90 days in jail. Coll said it was her responsibility to get to work everyday on her own because she didn’t have anyone else to drive her to work. After her second DUI, she hadn’t gotten her drivers license back yet, and she was caught for driving without a license and was sent right back to jail.
Rachel Coll talks in the video below about her experiences with incarceration and paying the resulting costs.
Jill Henline, U.S. probation officer, said, “If the fees or court costs are for their current conviction, the one they are being supervised in parole for, then it will be part of their conditions of supervision to pay any fines, fees or restitution as directed by the court.” Parolees can be put on a payment plan while on supervised release, but if they continue to fail to make payments, their supervised release could be revoked for non-payment.
Story and video by Abigail Lawhead