Saturday, July 7, 2012

A quick look at debtors' prisons

It was fascinating to learn a bit more about the debtors' prison issue on Chris Hayes' show this morning.

This has been an issue that has been around since the founding of the country - but has recently come to the spotlight again with a recent article in the New York Times.

And one the root causes of the problem is:
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.
Yes, indeed. Cash-strapped localities are once again turning to quick ways to raise revenue. Unfortunately, raising fees on services provided by the court in disproportionately impact the poor - who are more likely to fall into debt. 

In many of these cases, probation companies who are responsible for monitoring and collecting all fines will notify the court - and the court will issue an arrest warrant and yadda yadda yadda, you're back in jail.

The NYTs article references a study released in 2010, by the Brennan Center for Justice. It finds the following things:
• Fees, while often small in isolation, regularly total hundreds and even thousands of dollars of debt. • Inability to pay leads to more fees and an endless cycle of debt.• Although “debtors’ prison” is illegal in all states, reincarcerating individuals for failure to pay debt is, in fact, common in some – and in all states new paths back to prison are emerging for those who owe criminal justice debt.• As states increasingly structure their budgets around fee revenue, they only look at one side of the ledger.• Criminal justice debt significantly hobbles a person’s chances to reenter society successfully after a conviction. • Overdependence on fee revenue compromises the traditional functions of courts and cor­rectional agencies. 
Yes. It is illegal to imprison people for failing to pay debts. Let's look at that a little more.

In 1883, the U.S. federal government outlawed the practice and many states did, as well.

And in 1983 - the Supreme Court ruled:
A sentencing court cannot properly revoke a defendant's probation for failure to pay a fine and make restitution, absent evidence and findings that he was somehow responsible for the failure or that alternative forms of punishment were inadequate to meet the State's interest in punishment and deterrence, and hence, here the trial court erred in automatically revoking petitioner's probation and turning the fine into a prison sentence without making such a determination.
However, it seems that this is referring to when a citizen has been convicted of a crime and has gone through the judicial sentencing and then is being let out on probation. The problem today is that many of the people who are affected by these fines are people who never actually commit an offense, but are nonetheless found in contempt of civil court.

Of course, this is not a straight forward issue. Each state and each locality has taken its own unique way of raising fines and dealing with people who cannot pay for them - and as a result, it's created different problems. But this kind of system is not wholly beneficial to the goals of the judicial system - which in the end is supposed to "reform" criminals and reinstate them back into society. Unfortunately, the people are most affected by this seem to have the least criminal activity, but are being penalized for their economic status. I hope this issue doesn't go far from the national spotlight.

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