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December 7, 2015

"Are debtors' prisons returning?"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent lengthy CNN commentary authored by Van Jones and Jessica Jackson. Here are excerpts:

Debtors' prison is supposed to be illegal in the United States. But in too many American cities, it has made a shocking return.  This [past] week, a bipartisan group of leaders, and a few A-list celebrities, gathered at the White House to do something about it.

The problem: Faced with ballooning costs of America's massive incarceration industry, local jurisdictions have started billing people for time they spend behind bars.  They are also charging them for electronic supervision services. Not to mention DNA collection, juries and constitutionally mandated public defenders.

The trouble here is obvious: Recently incarcerated people often do not have jobs.  Therefore, they cannot possibly keep up with an increasingly aggressive list of fees and fines.

So believe it or not: Cities are throwing them BACK into jail -- for not being able to pay!  From Detroit to Dallas, America's criminal justice system is trapping poor people in a perpetual cycle of prisons and poverty....

On top of the stated fees and fines, many jurisdictions are adopting practices employed by shady payday lenders, not public safety agencies.  For example, Washington state charges a 12% interest rate on all its criminal debt.  Florida adds a 40% fee that goes into the pockets of a private collections agency.  And in Arizona, an 83% surcharge turns a $500 fee into a $915 bill.  A portion of those proceeds go to finance electoral campaigns, creating a strong incentive to preserve the status quo.

One study revealed that most people with a felony conviction can expect to be saddled with an average $11,000 in debt.  In total, about 10 million Americans collectively owe more than $50 billion in outstanding fines and fees. Repaying this debt would be challenging for the average American family, half of whom would have trouble finding $400 on short notice.  But for those already struggling to get on their feet after prison, the debt from fees and fines often carry carries with it an air of impossibility.

The current system has dire consequences for millions of Americans that can be permanently debilitating and perpetuates a cycle of poverty and incarceration.  Failure to pay fines can result in lost income, depressed credit ratings, housing instability, suspended drivers' licenses, arrest warrants, loss of Social Security benefits or further incarceration.  These consequences can permanently affect an individual's life and reduce the ability ever to get his or her life back on track.

The system is not supposed to work this way.  A Supreme Court ruling in 1983 prohibited putting people in prison for failure to pay their fines and fees without an indigency hearing.  And yet at least 15 states have found ways to ignore this mandate.  They have made this a standard practice....

The Sunlight Foundation is supporting the collection of data so we can understand the scope of the problem and how we can better address the issue.  The Laura and John Arnold Foundation is funding a comprehensive research and litigation-based approach to reform.  And #cut50 is dedicated to highlighting this injustice and amplifying leadership from around the country.

Together, we can roll back these policies that ultimately have little to do with public safety.  Our challenge strikes at the heart of our criminal justice system: Are we a nation of second chances, or will we sit by and watch a perpetual punishment machine run wild?  Let us ensure our elected representatives and government agencies live up to the highest values of our society.

This ABC News column authored by Lz Ganderson, headlined "To Be Poor, Black and Jailed," discusses similar issues and concerns.

December 7, 2015 at 08:16 AM | Permalink

Comments

These issues show why we need to bear arms.

Posted by: Liberty1st | Dec 7, 2015 5:41:34 PM

Yes, I agree. In a perfect world I would get rid of the death penalty as well as the 2A. But this is not a perfect world. What we seem to have forgotten is that equality is a forced state. We are not equal by nature and political equality is based upon an intellectual illusion. So why did Jefferson start a war with the claim all men are created equal? Because the founders understood the reverse was even worse. The type of forced inequality this article describes goes hand in hand with fascism, monarchy and their child--slavery.

Posted by: Daniel | Dec 7, 2015 6:57:01 PM

Disparate impact is now sufficient evidence of discrimination. Intention is no longer required. Discrimination is now strict liability malfeasance.

Where is the defense bar?

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Dec 8, 2015 8:37:24 AM

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