Two recent publications have noted a serious regression in America’s treatment of poor people. The first titled, “Criminal Justice Debt: A Barrier to Re-Entry,” published by the NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice, documents that states have begun to mandate “user fees” on individuals with criminal convictions.
These fees have a negative impact on communities traditionally burdened with high incarceration rates by the criminal justice system by opening new routes to prison for people unable to pay their debts. The report looked at practices in 15 states with the highest prison populations and examined the proliferation of “user fees.” These are financial obligations imposed, not for any traditional criminal justice purpose, but rather to fund tight state budgets. Eight of the 15 states suspend driving privileges for missed debt payments and seven require individuals to pay off criminal justice debt before they can regain their eligibility to vote. In all 15 states, criminal justice debt and associated collection practices can damage an individual’s credit.
Fourteen also utilize “poverty penalties” — piling on additional late fees and interest when individuals are unable to pay their debts. The state of Alabama charges a 30 percent collection fee and Florida allows for private debt collectors to tack on a 40 percent surcharge to collect debts.
The second report, released by the American Civil Liberties Union is titled “In For a Penny: The Rise of America’s New Debtors’ Prisons.” It presents the findings of a yearlong investigation into modern-day debtors’ prisons. In essence, the practice of incarcerating people because they cannot afford to pay their legal debts.
Although such practices are unconstitutional, debtors’ prisons are growing across the country, despite the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court prohibited imprisoning those who are too poor to pay their legal debts more than 20 years ago.
In some states, being unable to pay legal fees for using a public defender — which is a guaranteed right in the United States — becomes a criminal act. Meaning that the person’s only crime is being poor. Debtors’ prisons are most popular in the states with the largest prison populations like California, Michigan and Alabama.
The ACLU report cites several startling examples of poor people being mistreated by the justice system. Gregory White, a homeless man in Louisiana, was arrested for stealing $39 worth of food from a grocery store. He was billed $339 in legal fees. When he could not pay, he was arrested and spent 198 days in jail, which cost the city $35,000.
Percy Dear of New Orleans suffers from epilepsy and schizophrenia. He was arrested for begging in 2007 and was sentenced to either pay an immediate fine of $200 or spend 20 days in jail.
In Georgia, Ora Lee Hurley owed $705 in fines from a 1990 drug possession conviction. She stayed in jail for eight months for failing to pay.
These are examples of how states are seeking ways to criminalize poverty. Although in Bearden v. Georgia, the Supreme Court ruled that such practices violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, states across the country use debtors’ prisons to exact unequal justice on the poor, in particular African Americans, under the guise of making money. –torrance stephens, ph.d.