Modern Day Debtor Prisons:Going to Jail is Easy, Getting Out is the Hard Part

Ok, so while my right-wing friends are still talking about slavery and being oppressed by Massa Barack, here’s a look at what many Americans in this slow and shitty economy are dealing with. No, this post has nothing to with the ongoing search for gainful employment. Instead, it’s bout the countless people trapped in the judicial system as economic slaves, as municipalities go to extreme measures to collect debt. Yep, going to jail is easy, getting out is the hard part.

How extreme? Well, as extreme as unconstitutionally throwing people in jails for unpaid debt like traffic tickets, child support, and probationary fees incurred by individuals without the financial resources to pay — you know, poor people? — much like the historic number of individuals affected by the economic downturn. Which is pretty sad when you think about the fact that while every day working poor folk are throuwn in jail, not a single person on Wall St, has yet to be imprisoned for committing possibly the greatest crime in the last eighty years. A crime that lead to record profits for many corporations who already tap into the very lucrative prison industrial complex.

For example, checkout Ethan Brommer’s piece in the New York Times, Probation Fees Rise, Firms Profit and the Poor Go to Jail. It’s an excellent look at how this plys out all across the country, here in the land of the free, home of the brave who live in the pursuit of happiness and all that jazz:

CHILDERSBURG, Ala. — Three years ago, Gina Ray, who is now 31 and unemployed, was fined $179 for speeding. She failed to show up at court (she says the ticket bore the wrong date), so her license was revoked.

When she was next pulled over, she was, of course, driving without a license. By then her fees added up to more than $1,500. Unable to pay, she was handed over to a private probation company and jailed — charged an additional fee for each day behind bars.

For that driving offense, Ms. Ray has been locked up three times for a total of 40 days and owes $3,170, much of it to the probation company. Her story, in hardscrabble, rural Alabama, where Krispy Kreme promises that “two can dine for $5.99,” is not about innocence.

It is, rather, about the mushrooming of fines and fees levied by money-starved towns across the country and the for-profit businesses that administer the system. The result is that growing numbers of poor people, like Ms. Ray, are ending up jailed and in debt for minor infractions.

“With so many towns economically strapped, there is growing pressure on the courts to bring in money rather than mete out justice,” said Lisa W. Borden, a partner in Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, a large law firm in Birmingham, Ala., who has spent a great deal of time on the issue. “The companies they hire are aggressive. Those arrested are not told about the right to counsel or asked whether they are indigent or offered an alternative to fines and jail. There are real constitutional issues at stake.”

Half a century ago in a landmark case, the Supreme Court ruled that those accused of crimes had to be provided a lawyer if they could not afford one. But in misdemeanors, the right to counsel is rarely brought up, even though defendants can run the risk of jail. The probation companies promise revenue to the towns, while saying they also help offenders, and the defendants often end up lost in a legal Twilight Zone.

Here in Childersburg, where there is no public transportation, Ms. Ray has plenty of company in her plight. Richard Garrett has spent a total of 24 months in jail and owes $10,000, all for traffic and license violations that began a decade ago. A onetime employee of United States Steel, Mr. Garrett is suffering from health difficulties and is without work. William M. Dawson, a Birmingham lawyer and Democratic Party activist, has filed a lawsuit for Mr. Garrett and others against the local authorities and the probation company, Judicial Correction Services, which is based in Georgia.

[…] In a 2010 study, the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law examined the fee structure in the 15 states — including California, Florida and Texas — with the largest prison populations. It asserted: “Many states are imposing new and often onerous ‘user fees’ on individuals with criminal convictions. Yet far from being easy money, these fees impose severe — and often hidden — costs on communities, taxpayers and indigent people convicted of crimes. They create new paths to prison for those unable to pay their debts and make it harder to find employment and housing as well as to meet child support obligations.”

Stephen B. Bright, president of the Southern Center for Human Rights, who teaches at Yale Law School, said courts were increasingly using fees “for such things as the retirement funds for various court officials, law enforcement functions such as police training and crime laboratories, victim assistance programs and even the court’s computer system.” He added, “In one county in Pennsylvania, 26 different fees totaling $2,500 are assessed in addition to the fine.”

The use of these private companies should be as criminal as the old southern practice of peonage.

Oh, and speaking of Pennsylvania, there’s this city called Philadelphia that is well known as the City of Brotherly Love. Well, according to the efforts of the good folks at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, the City of Philadelpphia has very little love for the bothers — the ones with more time than money on their hands, that is. And like I mentioned briefly in passing, what’s happening in Philly, Alabama, and elsewhere is supposed to be unconstitutional per the Supreme Court. But, yet and still, there are many people “put in a trick bag” as they say, all for profit.

The U.S. Supreme Court has unambiguously held that criminal defendants can’t be jailed for inability to pay through no fault of their own. But state courts across the country routinely ignore that command and send people to jail without the required hearing to determine whether a defendant is indigent. They can steer around that by sentencing defendants for failure to appear in court, instead of nonpayment, though jail often means a reduction in a defendant’s tab calculated against time served.

Moreover, defendants facing civil contempt—the usual vehicle in nonpayment cases—must do so without a lawyer in many states, as the right to counsel applies only in criminal matters. The Supreme Court drove the point home in 2011 when it ruled that South Carolina didn’t have to provide a young father with a lawyer in a civil contempt proceeding for nonpayment of child support.

People who are able to pay but refuse get neither breaks nor sympathy.

Though the amounts of money states want can appear nominal to most, say $30 to $50 a month, they can total hundreds and even thousands of dollars over a lifetime and can mean fortunes to folks already living on the margins. Nonpayment of court fees in some states can mean loss of one’s driver’s license or denial of public benefits, such as housing assistance. Or it can inflict damage on credit reports so severe that employers and landlords who use them as background checks may think twice about hiring or renting to an ex-offender.

To fully understand how this impacts lives, I suggest you watch the following. The following video offers a critical analysis of the effort of the City of Philadelphia to collect over a billion dollars in outstanding criminal court fees, fines, costs and bail forfeitures from an estimated 400,000 people.

This is a must watch: