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March 28, 2016

NY Times laments "A Modern System of Debtor Prisons"

The New York Times today ran this editorial headlined "A Modern System of Debtor Prisons." Here are excerpts:

Court systems commonly raise revenue by punishing people who commit minor offenses with fines, fees and penalties that can pile up, driving them into poverty. Worse still, state and local governments often jail people illegally for nonpayment, putting them at risk of losing their jobs and homes.

The Justice Department responded forcefully to this problem in Ferguson, Mo. This month, the racially troubled town agreed to a federal plan to root out racist and unconstitutional practices in its Police Department and courts. The case put other state and local governments on notice that they, too, could be held accountable for operating court systems that violate the constitutional rights of people charged with nonpayment of fines.

The guidelines issued by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division explain in detail what courts can and cannot do when enforcing fine collections. The department says state and local courts have an obligation to inquire about a person’s ability to pay fines and fees before jailing them for nonpayment. The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that imprisoning a person because he or she is too poor to pay a fee amounts to “punishing a person for his poverty” and violates equal protection under the 14th Amendment....

The danger of unjust practices is magnified when courts hire private companies to collect court fines. These companies often operate without oversight, which leaves them free to adopt abusive tactics and bleed people with fees and penalties. The Justice Department makes clear that courts can be held accountable for constitutional violations committed by the firms they hire. The Ferguson reform plan is a reminder of how far state and local courts have strayed from the law in this area, and it provides a clear route to restoring lost justice for the indigent.

March 28, 2016 at 05:47 PM | Permalink

Comments

Please advise us of that Supreme Court case which you reference.

Posted by: Liberty1st | Mar 28, 2016 8:57:30 PM

"This would be little more than punishing a person for his poverty."

- BEARDEN v. GEORGIA

Posted by: Joe | Mar 29, 2016 9:47:13 AM

First of all, the Times editorial elides the serious issues with the Justice Department's edicts as they undermine the legitimate authority of local governments to impose fines for certain infractions (Note: this does NOT mean that I support the revenue-raising tactics of places like that--just that they are not unconstitutional because the infractions are not committed by groups in accordance with their numbers in the population). That's appalling--people should be fined for many many minor things (such as littering, public urination), and if they have the means, they should have to pay the fines.

Second, I'd be good with community service if it were real community service (like picking up trash along the side of the road, picking up recyclables etc.) But it never is.

Posted by: federalist | Mar 29, 2016 10:01:12 AM

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