Modern American Debtors’ Prisons

Citizen Wealth Financial Justice Ideas and Issues

New Orleans    Lord please help the poor, because in America these days it has become a crime to be poor!

Local jails are becoming debtors prisons thanks to the fact that local courts, where justice is rumored rather than meted out it seems, in many areas have outsourced fines and fees leaving people with a “go to jail” card and no “get out of jail” possibility.  Add this to the discussions we have had previously about judges who sent juveniles to prison to pay for the jail system and potentially pad their pockets and the similar pyramiding fee that has left some former students with mountains of debts because of the larded on fees and penalties for missed payments.

Today’s Times included a story by Ethan Bronner featuring two people in Alabama that had gotten traffic tickets and started sliding down the slippery slope of missed appearances and inability to pay (and tell me which of us has not been there!) and ended up doing jail time (in one case over 2 years worth during a decade of joblessness!) while still carrying the debt (up to $10,000 now!).  This defines debtors’ prisons that most Americans have thought we left in England a couple of hundred years ago when we came to this country.

Various lawyers and law professors are quoted reminding people that the Supreme Court has determined that this shouldn’t be the case by ruling that there have to be alternatives for the poor in lieu of inability to pay various fines and fees.  Problem is that these for profit blood suckers don’t feel any obligation to tell folks this and, clang, that’s the sound of the door shutting on the jail cell.  As despicable is the fact that some judges are using the fines and fees to pay for their own retirement benefits.  In fact there’s a dispute right now in the Orleans Parish courts about an additional retirement plan for the judges that no one seemed to know about and all involved seem convinced may be unethical.  It seems that this is common in a number of states according to a study cited particularly in the South by the Times.

I was talking to a judge last week in Ontario (yes, that’s in Canada) who was surprised to have courted some controversy because he had taken the radical step of using the fees his court has collected as something other than a slush fund for local feel good causes and instead was using the $200,000 plus as a mini-cy pres operation that funded nonprofits directly related to changing the conditions that led to the problems, provided rehab, and were involved in the criminal and juvenile justice system.  Have you got this?  It’s controversial and perhaps radical to use such fees to fund improvements in the system, but increasingly standard operating procedure for courts to use such funds for their own perks and pad the pockets of slick operators, while the poor carry the weight of the debt and do hard time for what might have started as a single speeding ticket.

This neo-liberal, pay-as-you-go-down system of criminalizing and impoverishing the poor has to be stopped.  By any means necessary!