They’re supposed to be illegal, but across the United States, debtor’s prisons are alive and well.
The ACLU, among many other organizations, is hard at work trying to abolish the practice, which amounts to imprisoning people for unpaid debt, like court fees.
In multiple states, including those with extremely high prison populations, this practice is still routine. Debtors’ prisons unfairly target low-income populations, particularly communities of color, thanks to racial profiling.
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Here’s how it works: When people make contact with the criminal justice system, they may face an array of court fees, but these fines are imposed regardless of ability to pay.
These courts don’t offer fee waivers, feasible payment plans or sufficient alternatives, such as community service. Interest begins to rack up, pushing fees into the hundreds or even thousands. When individuals can’t pay, they wind up being sent to jail.
These fees may be imposed for traffic violations or small claims court cases — including suits brought by lenders, thus ensuring that people who are already indebted will be caught in the crosshairs of the system. Other fines may come from situations where people are expected to pay bail or child support.
Roughly a third of US states have some form of debtor’s prison — here are just a few of them.
In Texas, former inmates are suing Harris County for a “wealth-based” system that puts people behind bars for an inability to pay. 55 people died in pretrial custody between 2009 and 2015 — and yes, you read that right. These individuals hadn’t even gone to court and been convicted.
The complainants also allege that they weren’t provided with defense attorneys to help them navigate a confusing legal system, and that they were slapped with fines above the legal maximum.
Another lawsuit, this time in San Francisco, claims that an arbitrary fee schedule doesn’t make allowances for ability to pay. Consequently, people are jailed for being unable to resolve their court fees.
Even the county sheriff stood behind the suit, acknowledging that requiring a generic fee schedule creates a highly stratified legal system. Wealthier people can easily pay bail and fees without having to borrow money, even at very high interest.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has gone after multiple Alabama cities, including Alexander City and Montgomery, for unfair court fees. In Alexander City, 30 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. The city aggressively collected fines and jailed those who didn’t pay until they reached a settlement with the SPLC in 2015 — as did Montgomery. The organization works aggressively across the South to address injustices like these in some of the most impoverished and racially stratified communities in the country.
In Arkansas, an aggressive criminal eviction law allows the state to jail individuals who fail to pay rent on time. Many of these renters lack the resources to hire attorneys, and they’re helpless in court against a landlord.
Renters can land in jail for as long as three months if a landlord chooses to pursue prosecution to the fullest extent of the law.
Failure to pay court-mandated fees, including restitution, can land debtors in jail in the Peach State. In Georgia, as elsewhere, the problem is compounded by the use of private third-party firms to administer court fees.
Such firms, operating at a profit rather than in the public interest, may misstate information and overcharge citizens. Private firms can send individuals to jail, even in situations where they shouldn’t have gone in the first place.
Florida has actually added listings to its fee schedule, creating even more chances to put people in jail. In some cases, defendants have to pay for their own arrests, in addition to other court fees, which is truly disturbing.
One Illinois resident was jailed over a failure to appear notice despite being unaware that a debt collector had brought proceedings against her. As it turns out, no notices were ever mailed.
In debt collection cases, not all judges are familiar with state-by-state rights. This can result in unfair rulings, increasing the probability that someone will be jailed for unpaid debt and accompanying court fees.
Even guidance from the Supreme Court hasn’t put an end to this appalling trend, which effectively imprisons people for being poor. However, there is some hope.
Earlier this year, the Department of Justice issued a sharp warning to some states that continue to engage in this practice. The DOJ advised the states to reevaluate their fee schedules and fee collection practices to ensure that they’re fairly administered.
In combination with the growing number of lawsuits and settlements pushing for justice reforms, maybe an end to modern-day debtor’s prisons is in sight.