By Elaine Magliaro
Two years ago, I wrote a column for Res Ipsa Loquitor on the subject of debtors’ prisons in the United States. In that posting, I told about a 2010 report published by the America Civil Liberties Union titled In for a Penny: The Rise of America’s New Debtors’ Prisons. The ACLU said it had found that debtors’ prisons were “flourishing” in this country, “more than two decades after the Supreme Court prohibited imprisoning those who are too poor to pay their legal debts.”
According to the ACLU report, some state and local governments had “turned aggressively to using the threat and reality of imprisonment to squeeze revenue out of the poorest defendants who appear in their courts.” The ACLU said that these “modern-day debtors’ prisons impose devastating human costs, waste taxpayer money and resources, undermine our criminal justice system, are racially skewed, and create a two-tiered system of justice.”
On Sunday, Jon Oliver did an in-depth segment on “municipal violations”—and what happens to people who can’t afford to pay their fines on time. Like Ferguson, Missouri, other towns also target black and low-income people and impose fines and court fees on them in order to raise money to balance their local budgets.
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Municipal Violations (HBO)
German Lopez (Vox)
In many cities and counties, failing to pay a ticket can often lead to more fines and fees, driver’s license suspensions, and even jail time. What’s worse, sometimes private, for-profit companies like Judicial Correction Services handle this debt collection for local governments, racking up as much money as possible. These schemes can often turn tickets worth $40 or $100 into monthly payments that add up to the thousands.
During his Sunday night program, Oliver said, “Not only should municipalities not be balancing their books on the backs of some of their most vulnerable citizens, but we cannot have a system where committing a minor violation can end up putting you in — and I’m going to use a legal term of art here — the fuck barrel.”
Around the same time that I had written my RIL post about debtors’ prisons, the ACLU of Ohio published a report titled The Outskirts of Hope: How Ohio’s Debtors’ Prisons Are Ruining Lives and Costing Communities. In 2013, the ACLU found that many municipalities in Ohio “routinely imprison those who are unable to pay fines and court costs despite a 1983 United States Supreme Court decision declaring this practice to be a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.” The ACLU said that affluent residents of Ohio who are sentenced to pay fines after being convicted of a criminal or traffic offense can simply pay the fines and go on with their lives. The same does not hold true for “Ohio’s poor and working poor” who may not have the monetary resources to pay their fines. Such people may find themselves at the “beginning of a protracted process that may involve contempt charges, mounting fees, arrest warrants, and even jail time. The stark reality is that, in 2013, Ohioans are being repeatedly jailed simply for being too poor to pay fines.”
The ACLU of Ohio reported that the U.S. Constitution, the Ohio Constitution, and Ohio Revised Code all prohibit debtors’ prisons. It said that the courts are required by law to determine whether an individual is too poor to pay a fine before jailing the person. It added that “debtors’ prisons actually waste taxpayer dollars by arresting and incarcerating people who will simply never be able to pay their fines, which are in any event usually smaller than the amount it costs to arrest and jail them.”
Modern Day Debtors’ Prison in the Deep South: The Story of Harriet Cleveland of Alabama (SPLC)
CBS News reported in 2013 that “high rates of unemployment and government fiscal shortfalls that followed the housing crash” had “increased the use of debtors’ prisons, as states look for ways to replenish their coffers.” Inimai Chettiar, director of the justice program at New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice, said, “It’s like drawing blood from a stone. States are trying to increase their revenue on the backs of the poor.” He added, “It’s a growing problem nationally, particularly because of the economic crisis.”
People of means may suffer a minor inconvenience when they commit a municipal violation. Poor people, on the other hand, may suffer devastating consequences when they can’t afford to pay their fines and court fees.
“Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outskirts of hope — some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both. Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity.”
– President Lyndon B. Johnson (State of the Union, 1964)
The Rise of “Debtors’ Prisons” in the US (Res Ipsa Loquitor)
SPLC lawsuit closes debtors’ prison in Alabama capital (Southern Poverty Law Center)