Debtor’s prisons: An attack on the poor


Most of us have committed a petty legal infraction like walking a dog without a leash, making an illegal left turn or drinking in public. You don’t go to jail for these offenses. You’re just hit with an annoying ticket and fine. But in many states you go to jail if you can’t pay those fees—the new, unconstitutional debtor’s prisons, the latest assault on our criminal justice system’s favorite punching bag, the American poor.

Even offenders who diligently make monthly payments to pay down their fines can get hit with an illness that causes them to miss work and miss payments, landing them back in jail. They’re then hit with more fines they can’t pay, and a lost job because of that jail time, a cruel, never-ending cycle.

Why is this happening? How is it that’s we’ve returned to 19th-century Dickensian tactics?

  • Privatization of criminal justice is a disaster

For-profit corporations generate revenue by collecting court fees and pushing for incarceration of those who can’t or won’t pay. Thirteen states now allow private companies like the legalistic sounding Judicial Correction Services to chase down court and traffic fines and fees and take on their own fees as well, making it even more difficult for people to pay. This translates to thousands of American courts and hundreds of thousands of minor offenders, according to Human Rights Watch.

  • Poor people can’t afford lawyers

The Supreme Court in 1983 prohibited imprisoning people who can’t afford to pay their debts. But this seems to be widely ignored, as we continue to incarcerate the poor, who are unable to hire lawyers to fight for them. (The ACLU, bless them, is fighting some of these cases. It points out that municipalities in states from Washington to Ohio are jailing people too poor to pay their legal debts.)

  • Cities jack up fines for major and minor offenses

Looking for revenue, and recognizing that taxing the poor rarely provokes any kind of political backlash from a population with a low voter turnout, politicians have enacted sweeping hikes in fines for people caught up in the criminal justice system—overwhelmingly, poor Americans. Court fees are now charged in all fifty states and they are often hefty. In Washington State, indigent defendants are charged $450 for a public defender—an attorney appointed for people who can’t afford a lawyer. They must want to shout: the whole point is we can’t afford a lawyer, so how can we afford this fee?!

Arizona hits its defendants with a whopping 83% surcharge, raising a $500 fine to $915, a price out of reach for the vast majority of defendants. Some court fees reach $2500 or more. Half of Americans couldn’t come up with $2000 in thirty days, and another quarter—the poorest, the group most likely to be caught up in the criminal justice system due to heavy policing in inner cities—couldn’t come up with it at all.

Earlier this year The Justice Department issued its scathing report about Ferguson, Missouri. The DOJ uncovered a pattern of emphasizing revenue collection by its police officers and municipal court at the expense of citizens’ constitutional rights. “The court primarily uses its judicial authority as the means to compel the payment of fines and fees that advance the city’s financial interest,” the report noted.

I’d like to see private collection companies and municipalities that violate the constitutional rights of indigent citizens get hit with massive fines for their wrongful acts. And if they can’t pay? Surely we can make a little more space in our crowded jails for them by releasing all the debtors, who should have no place behind bars in 21st-century America.


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