Stalinism on the Installment Plan

by Corey Robin on May 20, 2014

One of the most frequent motifs in the literature on Stalinism is that of the dissenter who confesses to a crime he never committed. What made Stalinism so depraved, in the eyes of intellectuals, was not that it jailed or slaughtered men and women by the millions; it was that it was that it got those men and women, who were plainly innocent, to affirm their guilt to a waiting world.

Here in the US, we don’t need to force people to confess to crimes they didn’t commit (though we certainly do that, too). No, to truly validate our system, we conscript the defendant’s soul in a different way.

A state-by-state survey conducted by NPR found that defendants are charged for many government services that were once free, including those that are constitutionally required. For example:

  • In at least 43 states and the District of Columbia, defendants can be billed for a public defender.
  • In at least 41 states, inmates can be charged room and board for jail and prison stays.
  • In at least 44 states, offenders can get billed for their own probation and parole supervision.
  • And in all states except Hawaii, and the District of Columbia, there’s a fee for the electronic monitoring devices defendants and offenders are ordered to wear.

These fees — which can add up to hundreds or even thousands of dollars — get charged at every step of the system, from the courtroom, to jail, to probation. Defendants and offenders pay for their own arrest warrants, their court-ordered drug and alcohol-abuse treatment and to have their DNA samples collected. They are billed when courts need to modernize their computers. In Washington state, for example, they even get charged a fee for a jury trial — with a 12-person jury costing $250, twice the fee for a six-person jury.

It would be short-sighted to see these policies as mere cost-saving measures. Their function seems as ideological as it is financial. As one court administrator in Michigan put it:

The only reason that the court is in operation and doing business at that point in time is because that defendant has come in and is a user of those services. They don’t necessarily see themselves as a customer because, obviously, they’re not choosing to be there. But in reality they are.

That these policies overwhelmingly target the poor only adds to their allure: What better way to reform capitalism’s losers than to force them to pay to play?

In the same way that the Stalinist show trial was meant to model the virtuous comrade—so dutiful to the ideals of communism that he would sacrifice his very life in order to validate the cause—so does the American criminal justice system model the virtuous capitalist: so committed to the ideals of the free market that he’s willing to pay the price, in both senses of the word, of his crime.