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Across the South, Many Jails Are Illegal Debtors’ Prisons

Local courts across the US are illegally locking up poor people when they cannot afford to pay fines.

(Photo: Paying for Freedom via Shutterstock

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Amanda Underwood is a mother of five who works at a fast-food restaurant in Alexander City, Alabama. She recently borrowed her friend’s car to pick up food for her friend’s children and received a traffic ticket for driving with a suspended license. Underwood is already having trouble making ends meet, and if she cannot afford to pay off the ticket, she may once again end up washing police cars to earn her way out of jail and back to her job and family.

In Alexander City, where nearly 30 percent of the city’s 15,000 residents live below the poverty line, people who receive a fine for traffic violations and misdemeanors in court are told by the judge to go to the “back room” behind the judge’s bench. In the back room, which is not open to public, they must pay the fine in full before the end of business hours, or they are booked into the jail located in another part of the same building, according to a federal complaint filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) on September 8.

“People are afraid to go to court because they know that they don’t have the money to pay their fines.”

Underwood found herself in the back room after pleading guilty to a traffic violation on April 24, 2014. The father of her two youngest children was there too, for he also owed money to the court. Both were arrested and jailed for failing to pay fines and fees amounting to a combined $650. It was their son’s second birthday and no one was around to watch the kids, so Underwood became desperate. Luckily, her ex-husband lent them the money, and they were released later that day.

Underwood returned to court with another traffic ticket in June. She was out of a job and had no money to pay the $230 fine, so she went to jail, where each day spent behind bars earned her $20 toward the fine. She earned an extra $20 each day washing police cars and cleaning cells and a break room used by police officers. She was released after five days.

“People are afraid to go to court because they know that they don’t have the money to pay their fines,” Underwood said in a statement. “They know that they will be locked up away from their family and kids. This shouldn’t be happening in America.”

Jailed for Being Poor

Underwood is a lead plaintiff in the federal class-action lawsuit filed by the SPLC in September against Alexander City, which claims the city’s police and municipal court have used the local jail as an illegal debtors’ prison for more than a decade. Like hundreds of others, Underwood was never offered a public defender because the judge did not consider jail time as punishment for the traffic tickets, but her life was interrupted by incarceration anyway, simply because she was too poor to pay the fines up front.

Congress outlawed debtors’ prisons nearly 200 years ago. Since then, federal courts have made it clear that indigent people can not be jailed for being unable to pay legal debts. In the 1983 case Bearden v. Georgia, the Supreme Court ruled that judges must distinguish between those who have made efforts but are unable to pay, and those who “willfully” refuse to pay fines.

Still, legal advocates estimate that thousands of low-income people in the South and across the United States are illegally jailed every year because they are unable to pay off legal debts to municipal courts, even when they are trying hard to do so. Debtors’ prison practices have an especially heavy impact on communities of color, which are often both low-income and disproportionately targeted by police.

“Everyone knows that there is no public safety risk; it’s all about generating revenue and money.”

Consider Kevin Thompson, a Black 19-year-old who was jailed in DeKalb County, Georgia, for failing to pay $810 in traffic fines. A judge gave him 30 days to pay, but his license had been suspended because he forgot to file paperwork with the state motor vehicle office. Unable to work his normal job as a tow-truck driver, Thompson worked odd jobs at an auto shop and borrowed money from family, but it was not enough to pay the fine in full by the time he was due back in court, where his mother watched as he was handcuffed and taken to a cage behind the courtroom.

“I spent five days in the DeKalb County Jail where it was cold and dirty, and I didn’t get enough food,” Thompson wrote in a January blog post. “I felt ashamed, scared, and sad during those five days. It hurt to be separated from my family. And even after I was released, I felt scared that police might arrest me and jail me again for no good reason. After all DeKalb County and JCS essentially jailed me for being poor.”

In January, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit on behalf of Thompson against DeKalb County, claiming that the local court had teamed up with the for-profit company Judicial Correction Services (JCS) to “engage in a coercive debt collection scheme that focuses on revenue generation at the expense of protecting poor people’s rights.”

Thompson said the JCS officer assigned to his case failed to inform him that he had the right to legal counsel, and instead told him that a public defender would cost $150, even though the fee is $50 and can be waived for those who can’t afford it.

The case was settled in March, and a federal judge ordered DeKalb County to make a monetary payment to Thompson and initiate reforms in its local court to prevent debtors’ prison practices.

Legal advocates have taken up similar cases across the South. On September 8, the same day the SPLC filed its lawsuit against Alexander City, the Southern Center for Human Rights filed a class-action lawsuit against the City of Calhoun, Georgia, for jailing people with traffic tickets or misdemeanor charges and keeping them for up to a week when they fail to post a standard bail amount that many poor people simply cannot afford.

In 2014, the city of Montgomery, Alabama, instituted reforms in its local courts and refused to renew its contract with JCS after civil rights attorneys challenged the city’s practices and the SPLC filed a lawsuit on behalf of Harriet Cleveland, a Black grandmother of four who was arrested and jailed for falling behind on traffic ticket payments.

SPLC deputy legal director Sam Brooke agreed that it’s not difficult for advocates to reach favorable settlements in such cases because federal legal precedents make it clear that debtors’ prison practices are illegal, but many municipal courts continue to act as “cashier courts” and “revenue generators” on the backs of poor people anyway.

“I think everyone knows that there is no public safety risk; it’s all about generating revenue and money,” Brooke told Truthout. “They are not acting with accountability because no one is watching.”

The extent of the problem is beginning to come to light, however. In Louisiana, a recent ACLU review of six weeks worth of local court records from seven of the state’s 64 parishes (counties) identified more than 300 cases where defendants were jailed for failing to pay fines or given a choice between making a payment and jail time, suggesting that thousands of low-income people are illegally incarcerated in the state every year.

Generating Revenue Off Black and Poor People

Ferguson, Missouri, provides perhaps the most infamous example of a modern local debtors’ prison scheme, which came to national attention in 2014, during the popular uprising that erupted after a white police officer shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown.

During the nightly protests in August 2014, Truthout spoke with young Black men in Ferguson who were harassed by police and jailed for failing to pay court fines, which in turn cut them off from family and sources of income. In the months to come, civil rights lawyers would file lawsuits challenging debtors’ prison practices in Ferguson, and a sweeping investigation by the US Justice Department concluded that Ferguson police disproportionately targeted Black residents for arrest and traffic stops, feeding a local court system that prioritized revenue over justice and public safety.

Debtors’ prison practices are not only a problem in the South, and the ACLU has exposed debtors’ prison schemes in Ohio, Michigan, New Hampshire, Washington and Colorado. Brooke said such schemes could be found in every state in the nation, but the South is a “fertile environment” because in general, voters and lawmakers more frequently oppose tax increases to pay for government services.

“When we refuse to raise taxes … public entities are going to look for some other ways to do it,” he added.

Brooke said debtors’ prison schemes the SPLC has observed do not have an “explicit racial tone,” but he suggested that a white judge from a middle-class background may lack “cultural awareness” and interpret a tattoo or a new pair of sneakers as evidence that a defendant can find the money to pay a fine or fee that they actually cannot afford.

Racial bias among law enforcement is an explicit and well-documented problem, however, so low-income people of color bear the brunt of harsh debtors’ prison schemes.

“Individuals should know that the law says you cannot be jailed if you can’t afford to pay.”

In Alexander City, for example, Black people make up about one-third of the population and white people make up about two-thirds, but two-thirds of the people arrested over the past two years were Black, according to data compiled by the SPLC. Black people in Alexander City are twice as likely to be jailed for nonpayment even though they make up half of the white population.

“This inequality is typical of debtors’ prisons across the state,” Brooke said.

Civil rights advocates are calling on courts and judges to conduct meaningful indigence hearings and consider sliding scale fines and alternatives like payment plans and community service before locking people up for being poor. In the meantime, Brooke said it’s important to know your rights.

“Individuals should know that the law says you cannot be jailed if you can’t afford to pay,” Brooke said.

Those who can’t afford a ticket or fine and come before a judge, Brooke said, should take time to explain their financial situation, such as income and monthly expenses. Many people only need to be put on a payment plan or given an extra week to wait for an upcoming paycheck in order to pay a fine. Plus, it’s illegal to send someone to jail without informing them of their right to speak with an attorney or public defender.

After all, freedom should never be a luxury reserved only for those who can afford it.

Update: The SPLC has asked a federal court to delay a hearing on its lawsuit against Alexander City for 60 days while the parties discuss settlement options. Alexander City has agreed not to jail anyone on the sole basis of failing to pay a fine during that time.

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