Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Debtor Imprisonment Persists in the United States

The latest newsletter from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) contained an article with this headline:

"Sent to debtors’ prison for trash bill, man freed after SPLC intervention"

Debtors’ prison? Weren’t debtors’ prisons ruled illegal and terminated long ago? What is going on?

The article describes the fate of an unemployed Alabama man named Richard Van Horn who could not pay an $88 trash bill. This was deemed a misdemeanor and Van Horn was scheduled for a court hearing two months in the future. The judge demanded that he put up a $500 bond to guarantee his return for the court hearing. When Van Horn announced that he was indigent and could not provide that bond he was put in jail and destined to remain there for the next two months. Van Horn was denied legal representation normally provided to the poor because the charge against him could not result in a prison sentence—yet he ended up in prison anyway. The system was determined to house a man in prison for two months in its quest to collect on a $88 debt!

When SPLC became involved, the district attorney and judge immediately agreed to release the man without bail.

The article contained this comment:

"’It’s unconstitutional to jail poor people simply because they cannot pay,’ said Sara Zampierin, SPLC staff attorney. ‘We’re happy that Mr. Van Horn has been reunited with his family, but we know that many more people serve jail time because they have no other option’."

Many more people? Just how common is this practice?

An article by Tina Rosenberg in the New York Times sheds light on the issue: Out of Prison, Into a Vicious Circle of Debt.

"....the Brennan Center for Justice studied Mecklenburg County in North Carolina, which in 2009 arrested 564 people for failing to pay their debts and jailed just under half of them for several days before their hearings."

What is the legal justification for this practice?

"Debtor’s prisons were abolished in the United States in the early 1800s and the Supreme Court has ruled it is unconstitutional to jail someone for failing to pay a debt.  Courts get around the ruling by arguing that they are jailing people not for debt but for violating a court order."

Van Horn’s treatment apparently is not uncommon. One has to wonder what perverse incentive would encourage law enforcement to jail people at great public expense to recover such tiny amounts.

The subject of Rosenberg’s article is actually a bigger and even more troubling issue: the growing practice of charging people caught up in our legal system fees to cover expenses involved in the legal process. As she points out, it is possible for an innocent person to be charged with a crime, be acquitted of all charges, and then be forced to pay a fee to cover the state’s expenses. And as we have seen one can end up in prison if they cannot pay that fee. People actually convicted of a crime can exit prison with no money and large debts to be paid. The price for nonpayment of the debt can be a return to prison.

An editorial from 2007 in the New York Times puts the issue in focus.

"States must also end the Dickensian practice of saddling ex-offenders with crushing debt that they can never hope to pay off and that drives many of them right back to prison."

"Often, the lion’s share of the debt is composed of child support obligations that continue to mount while the imprisoned parent is earning no money. The problem does not stop there. The corrections system buries inmates in fines, fees and surcharges that can amount to $10,000 or more. According to the Justice Center study, for example, a person convicted of drunken driving in New York can be charged a restitution fee of $1,000, a probation fee of $1,800 and 11 other fees and charges that range from $20 to nearly $2,200."

Rosenberg illustrates how this system takes people who have served their time for committing a crime and sends them back to jail as debtors.

"These debts would seem to drive more than a few back into the system.  Probation officers are the front line people pushing probationers to pay, and one of their most effective weapons is the threat of arrest.  But this drives probationers into hiding if they don’t have the money.  "They end up going underground, not fulfilling their probation requirements because they can’t fulfill the court fees," said Abrigal Forrester, a program coordinator for StreetSafe Boston, which does gang intervention and other work to help reduce crime in tough neighborhoods.   If you skip your meetings with probation, you are probably going back to prison."

"In most cases, you can’t get off probation until the debt is paid.  Here’s a vicious circle: the longer probation lasts, the more money you owe.  Nor are fees waived for indigence in the vast majority of cases.  The Brennan Center found that of the 15 states with the largest number of prisoners, 13 of them charge fees for using public defenders — charging clients who are indigent by definition."

The legality of these legal procedures is doubtful, but who is going to worry about mistreatment of criminals or former criminals?

"....the Supreme Court has ruled it is unconstitutional to jail someone for failing to pay a debt.  Courts get around the ruling by arguing that they are jailing people not for debt but for violating a court order.   Charging people for using a public defender violates the spirit, if not the letter, of Gideon v Wainwright, the 1963 decision requiring state courts to provide counsel for criminal defendants who cannot afford it.  Many states also block ex-offenders from recovering the right to vote until all fees are paid — making the fee effectively a poll tax."

A procedure that attempts to raise money, but funnels people with small debts into increasingly unaffordable prison systems seems absurd. One suspects that the explanation is the standard one: somewhere, somehow, people are making money at state expense via this process.

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