Debtors’ prisons: the practice of putting people in prison for being unable to pay a debt. While debtors prisons may sound like something you'd read about in a text book on the 18th century, they are still being utilized across the country today.
Just today, a judge accused of running a debtors' prison in Bogalusa, Lousiana, agreed to suspend the practice pending further review. Were it not for the fierce efforts of lawyers from the Southern Poverty Law Center, defendants in Judge Robert Black's courtroom could still be jailed for having hundreds of dollars in outstanding fines which they have no ability to pay, slapped with additional late fees and deprived of their due process. This is happening all across the country in small towns and jurisdictions.
All across the country, Americans are facing record fines for even the smallest infractions, and are levied often-unaffordable fees for every interaction with our police and courts. Since 2010, all states except for Alaska, North Dakota, and DC have increased civil/criminal fees, now charging for many services that are constitutionally required and were once free.
This practice is at the root of many of the problems that make headlines each day, but only now are people beginning to connect the dots.
Take the common practice of suspending someone’s driver’s license. Doing so makes it harder for that person to care for their family, more difficult to get to work, and nearly impossible to find a job. Yet in nearly 40 percent of cases, people lose their license not for dangerous driving, but because they were assessed a fine or fee they could not afford to pay.
Or take the “school-to-prison pipeline” that is destroying the lives of so many young people. Even though we expect juveniles to be treated differently than adults, that principle does not hold true when it comes to fees and fines. Many young people face a fine for a youthful mistake that then compounds due to their inability to pay, landing them in jail and changing the entire course of their lives.
Or, consider the much-debated case of Ferguson, Missouri. The U.S. Justice Department’s investigation of the Ferguson Police Department found that police there were tasked with collecting fines and fees in order to fund city government, rather than maintain public safety, which “compromised the institutional character” of the department and led to a “a pattern of unconstitutional policing.”
Worst of all, the fines and fees system has turned local governments into the equivalent of predatory lenders. Washington state charges a 12% interest rate on all its criminal debt. Florida adds a 40% fee that goes into the pockets of a private collections agency. In California, penalties can raise a $100 fine to $490, or $815 if the initial deadline is missed. A $500 traffic ticket can actually cost $1,953, even if it is paid on time.
And so we are left with countless tales of lives ruined—people living paycheck to paycheck who cannot afford a minor fine, and so face ballooning penalties, increasing amounts owed, a suspended license, jail time, and being fired from their jobs or unable to find work.
How did this come about? In theory, debtors’ prisons—jails for people too poor to pay their debts—were outlawed years ago. The Supreme Court reaffirmed its stance against indigent people going to jail for debts in a 1983 decision, Bearden vs. Georgia. But the justices failed to define “indigent,” among other ambiguities that allowed the current system to flourish.
Then came the 2008 economic crash. The resulting pressure on state and local budgets led policymakers to turn increasingly to fines and fees to finance the courts and government as a whole—what one expert calls “taxation by citation.” On top of it all, governments privatized public functions like probation and debt collection, with private companies having every incentive to rack up more fees and fines.
In essence, a toxic mix of legal ambiguity and penny-wise, pound-foolish policy has led to a situation where a working American can end up in jail owing thousands of dollars as a result of one parking ticket.
The way out starts with fierce advocacy, deliberate study, and better decision-making. The ACLU recently reached a sweeping settlement with Biloxi, Mississippi, that provides a model for future reform. Biloxi will now scale back for-profit probation companies, place limits on jail time and suspended licenses, and adopt new protections for those who cannot afford to pay.
Much more needs to be done. In the coming weeks, #cut50 looks forward to highlighting the work of activists, advocates, lawmakers and civil rights leaders bringing about much needed reform to a practice that traps some of our most vulnerable citizens in a vicious cycle of poverty and incarceration. Tune in to our Fines and Fees series for more!