How Big Fines Are Leading To Modern-Day Debtor’s Prisons

Though debtor’s prisons have been officially outlawed for three decades, the ACLU worries that courts around the country still dish out jail time to those too penniless to pay their fines.

On the surface, debtor’s prisons might seem like an outdated concept, and though technically speaking they are, with an estimated $50 billion (pdf) in debt resulting from the criminal justice system, collecting big fines has become a big to-do.

Used prominently in the United States during the 1800s, debtor’s prisons were quite literally brick and mortar jails built solely to cage those who failed to pay their debts.

Today, however, despite debtor’s prisons having been long abolished and destroyed, modern-day courts have begun adopting a similar model–one that according to the ACLU, is expanding at an alarming rate.

Though there are no official statistics on a national level, that show how many go to jail because they are unable to pay their debts, some have estimated on a state level and range as high as 1,000 people per month in Alabama.

The new debtor’s prisons

If someone told you that catching a smallmouth bass off-season could send you to jail, would you believe them? What about failing to pay a traffic ticket in a timely manner?

While these offenses might not themselves constitute a jail sentence, in 17 states around the country, failure to pay (the sometimes exorbitant) fines stemming from one’s offenses can do just that–even if you don’t have a dollar to spare.

Organizations like the ACLU and some civil rights lawyers claim that incarcerations like this are tantamount to modern day debtor’s prisons, citing a Supreme Court decision from 1989 which excludes the impoverished from being imprisoned solely because they are impoverished.

So who exactly is this happening to? According to a comprehensive report from the ACLU, some examples of those subject to debt imprisonment include:

Kristy and Timothy Fuggat were charged $500 altogether for three traffic violations and placed on the watch of a private probation company. When the couple fell behind on their payments, they were arrested at their home, threatened with a taser, and then forced to pay $900 in fines (which was provided by their extended family) before they could leave jail.

Sean Matthews, a homeless construction worker who spent 5 months in jail after failing to pay fines related to marijuana possession

Gregory White, who was sentenced to nearly 7 months in jail after failing to pay almost $400 in fines related to stealing $39 worth of food.

For Mr. White and Mr. Matthews, the total cost incurred on the cities in which they were jailed totaled $6,500–8 times what their fines are worth.

The issues

According to both the ACLU and the Brennan Center for Justice in New York, the system of debtors imprisonment–though some courts use it as a last ditch effort to collect outstanding fines–can have adverse repercussions on all parties involved; even the court itself.

Some problems behind debt imprisonment include:

The cost of jailing individuals who are unable to pay fees is actually more onerous on city government  

While the total cost of incarcerating those unable to pay their debts goes entirely untracked by the courts, individual examples of how debtors can rack up huge fines have been profiled by the ACLU.

According to their report, just two arrests in New Orleans stemming from a total of $840 in unpaid fines cost the city $6,500 altogether–almost 8 times the total value of the fines.

Hidden charges on debtors can make steep fines impossible to pay

In a report by Brennan Center for Justice, researchers found that 13 out of the 15 states they profiled charged a ‘public defender fee’ which is a fee imposed on defendants for using a state-provided lawyer (a constitutionally guaranteed right that is supposed to be free).

Apparently, fees like this are not uncommon in the court system. In Florida, private debt collectors can charge up to a 40 percent surcharge on top of the already existing fines.

In Louisiana debtors are charged $100 just to enter a payment plan.

Fines, called Legal Financial Obligations (LFOs) can grow quickly and substantially

According to an ACLU report in Washington state, the average amount of LFOs imposed was $2,450–a fine which accrues cost due to a mandatory 12 percent interest rate annually.

Since debtors are usually unable to find steady work, pricy fines like this are often unpayable.

The other side

Courts and judges often struggle with deciding whether or not someone is wilfully refusing to pay their fines or whether they are financially unable.

Some judges believe that choosing not to impose the fines will result in disregard for the law, as people may not be forced to respect their obligations.

Since many cities (pdf) face budget shortfalls, the collection of fines is imperative to keep the court system up and running.

The takeaway

For judges, making a decision on whether or not to send someone to jail for outstanding debt can be a difficult one.

According to the Supreme Court’s Bearden decision, a judge is responsible for deciding whether or not a person can pay their debts, or they are willfully refusing–a decision which is usually based off of advice from probation officers or counselors.

At the root of the debtor’s prisons are a laundry list of state-levied fines and surcharges which spread across the whole country and include

41 states that require inmates to pay room and board

44 states that make offenders pay for parole

49 states that make offenders pay for their electronic tracking bracelets.

With many cities and states looking to fill holes in their budgets, it’s likely that debtors may continue to fall subject to hefty fines, surcharges, and debtor’s prison.

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James Pero