Finally, someone is taking legal action to protect the poor who get caught in a vicious cycle of legal fines and fees. In many states, people find themselves entrapped in a cycle of mounting expenses they can’t pay, until the debtor is sent to prison for non-payment. It’s a pernicious way in which smaller communities supplement their budgets by fining those don’t have the money to pay the fines that multiply into permanent debt—a little like a speed trap, or a recurring subscription that bleeds money from your account once you forget about it, but it’s far worse.
It was heartening recently to hear that the Arkansas Civil Liberties Union and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law filed a class action civil rights lawsuit on behalf of these poor victims of a legal system that has become an illusory cash cow for smaller communities. In reality, as The Economist has reported, the cost of incarceration usually exceeds anything a community can collect from these hapless defendants.
The Huffington Post reported on, Lee Robertson, who wrote a string of eleven checks, each a one-and two-figure sum that amounted to nothing more than petty cash, and the checks bounced because his chemotherapy bills had drained his cash flow. After seven years of being unable to pay the bills that compounded after these “hot checks”, his fines and debts added up to more than $3,000. He was sentenced to jail for non-payment, even though he had no ability to pay.
There’s something fiendish in all this. Even without having to deal with legal fees around minor citations and infractions, large percentiles of American citizens find themselves now unable to climb out of debt. In our long-stagnant economy, many of those in the lower income percentiles have been borrowing to pay bills, and in their own finances they find themselves on a similar carousel of mounting debt. While many may be able to climb out of this debt eventually, others are on a path that leads to insolvency. The last thing these people need are a court system designed to increase their debt and ultimately jail them.
The Huffington Post has recounted heart-rending stories on some of these defendants, many of whom wept as they spoke to a reporter with the Arkansas Times: “One man claimed to have spent 405 days in the . . . County Jail over the years after passing a $58 hot check back in 1998.” As this defendant put it:
I have lost everything because of this. It’s just a revolving cycle I’m on. You never know when you’re going to get it paid off. It’ll seem like you’re going to get it paid off, but you don’t get it paid off. You think it’s going down, but then it’s going back up on you. You never get through paying.
Another, Nikki Petree, bounced a check for $28 and was then arrested seven times for the infraction, and was finally sentenced to three months in jail. The Huffington Post reported that her costs amounted to $642, which she was financially unable to pay.
None of this should be happening. If a defendant is unable to pay fines and fees, they can be put on a plan to pay off the debt in installments, but courts are not allowed to send anyone to jail who cannot come up with the money for it. In 1983, the Supreme Court ruled that, before sending someone to jail for nonpayment, the legal system must make sure someone is able to pay but unwilling to do it. In many states this isn’t happening. The Economist reported that some states were even charging defendants fees for public defenders, which the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional in 1963.
As the American Civil Liberties Union put it, this creates a “two-tiered” system of justice, where the wealthy can easily adhere to the system while the poor sink deeper and deeper into poverty and even imprisonment. The ACLU has exposed this kind of practice in Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, Washington, Colorado, New Hampshire, Georgia, and Louisiana. Let’s hope the Arkansas lawsuit sheds a bright light on this despicable miscarriage of justice and keeps our courts from continuing to warp prosecution into a form of persecution. Whatever happened in these communities is surely not justice.