Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Charging, and jailing, the poor: Suggestions to eliminate debtors prisons

Here's the abstract from a recent Maryland Law Review article by Neil Sobol from the Texas A&M School of Law (formerly Texas Wesleyan) titled, "Charging the Poor: Criminal Justice Debt and Modern Day Debtor's Prisons."
Debtors’ prisons should no longer exist. While imprisonment for debt was common in colonial times in the United States, subsequent constitutional provisions, legislation, and court rulings all called for the abolition of incarcerating individuals to collect debt. Despite these prohibitions, individuals who are unable to pay debts are now regularly incarcerated, and the vast majority of them are indigent. In 2015, at least ten lawsuits were filed against municipalities for incarcerating individuals in modern-day debtors’ prisons.

Criminal justice debt is the primary source for this imprisonment. Criminal justice debt includes fines, restitution charges, court costs, and fees. Monetary charges exist at all stages of the criminal justice system from pre-conviction to parole. They include a wide variety of items, such as fees for electronic monitoring, probation, and room and board. Forty-three states even charge fees for an indigent’s “free” public defender. With expanding incarceration rates and contracting state budgets, monetary sanctions have continued to escalate. Additionally, many states and localities are now outsourcing prison, probation, monitoring, and collection services to private companies, who add additional fees and charges to the criminal justice debt burden of defendants.

The impact of criminal justice debt is especially severe on the poor and minorities as they are frequently assessed “poverty penalties” for interest, late fees, installment plans, and collection. Often they have to decide between paying criminal justice debt and buying family necessities. The deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in New York, and Freddie Gray in Baltimore have prompted renewed calls for investigation of the adverse treatment of the poor and minorities in the criminal justice system. The fear of arrest, incarceration, and unfair treatment for those owing criminal justice debt creates distrust in the system.

In February 2015, a class action complaint was filed against the City of Ferguson asserting that the city’s jails had become a “modern debtors’ prison scheme” that had “devastated the City’s poor, trapping them for years in a cycle of increased fees, debts, extortion, and cruel jailings.” Moreover, the Department of Justice’s report on the Ferguson Police Department presents a scathing indictment of a system apparently more concerned with revenue collection than justice. Unfortunately, as illustrated by recent lawsuits and investigations alleging debtors’ prisons in Alabama, Colorado, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and Washington, the abuses are not limited to Ferguson, Missouri.

The same concerns that led to the historical restrictions on debtors’ prisons have risen again with the growth of modern-day debtors’ prisons. Similar to the prisons in London during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that were criticized for using a privatized system that charged inmates for all services, including room and board, the current justice system improperly charges the poor. It is now time to revisit these concerns and implement effective restrictions to reduce the incidence of debtors’ prisons. To remedy these concerns, my Article proposes eliminating egregious sanctions, providing courts flexibility to base fines on earning levels, and establishing procedures to enforce restrictions against incarcerating those who are truly unable to pay their criminal justice debt.
For more on the topic, check out the class-action complaint filed last fall against City of Austin muni courts over debtors-prison style abuses.


Anonymous said...

Amen! I work in a Texas municipal court. We're swamped right now with people paying because they just got their income tax refund (or took a high-interest loan against it). I know damn well they're poor, and being blocked from renewing their license means they either can't work or they subject themselves to more citations by driving without a license (our most common offense by far). It's a bad spiral. Our executives don't want an alternative; they say "Maybe some of these defendants will win a lottery and pay! We can wait." They want money, not solutions.

Anonymous said...

Grits, Tyler, Smith county, Texas is a perfect example of the corruption you have described. Why have you not investigated or pubically brought light to this oligarchy, a travesty of justice at best?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I don't make it back to my hometown as much as I'd like these days, 11:15, though I've written about Smith County a fair amount over the last 11 years, if you check the archives. It's a big state and I'm just one guy without a sponsor or a travel budget.

@3:32, that's pretty much my impression, too.

Anonymous said...

Working in an adult probation department, it's tempting just to go on strike regarding extra fees. From now on we'll just operate on the money the legislature appropriates, and charge only those fees that are mandated by law for the probationers to pay. We won't have any UA fees, any fees for the classes we teach, any fees to pay for counseling we provide, etc. Moreover, we won't put any pressure at all on the probationers to pay. We'll just tell them, "pay what you can." Then maybe our department will raise the salaries of all officers to be equal to teachers in the local school district. That will necessitate laying off people or just letting positions go unfilled. That will increase caseload sizes to the range of 200 per officer, which means regular supervision will consist of taking maybe 5 or 10 minutes a month with each probationer to say, "Report, pay, have a nice day, and go give a UA." Conducting risk assessments, developing supervision plans, and documenting activities? Nah, we can just write, "He ain't acting right." Field work to see if someone is still drinking even after 5 DWIs and driving a car he didn't tell us about? Forget it. Taking time to deal with the real problems of the offender? Nah, we'll just shake a finger at them and say, "You will be good!" Substance abuse problem? Just go to AA/NA. Counseling to deal with the childhood sexual abuse that led you to drugs and alcohol? Well, you'll have to be on our waiting list because we can't afford to pay for your counseling. Of course, when the felony DWI offender drives the car he didn't tell us about (so there was no ignition interlock on it) and kills someone, we'll get blamed. But then the citizens can all breathe a sigh of relief as they say to themselves, "At least we didn't have to pay any more in taxes." Justice on the cheap. This is one messed up system.

Anonymous said...

George & Dallas, go easy on the person working in the Adult Probation Department. He/she be trippin and apparently not being paid enough to put up with any BS. If anyone sees a lone striker in front of the Probation Dept., post a link to a pic.

Anonymous said...

"Outside of a few computer courses, prison in the U.S. is about one thing, punishment and long incarceration and more punishment. Most offenders serve 3 to 4 times the sentence for the same offense as their peers in western Europe and many other nations. Some of our allies have been known to hold Americans sought by our law enforcement rather than return them to a system they consider to be "barbaric". A very large and important study done in the early 1990's reflected that, approximately, one-half of the guards in federal prisons were mentally ill and the No. 1 concern of federal judges is prestige. A large meeting of jurists in Europe called the American Drug War "the most heinous application of law since the Holocaust". Removing our moral responsibility for paying and caring for those we incarcerate in favor of distancing ourselves from our laws and judgement by allowing corrupt privatized prisons owned by the usual political families and insiders, is a sin against democracy, much like the lawbreaking, failure, and corruption that has come from so much privatizing of our armed forces. After five years, many prisoners lose their minds, their teeth begin to fall out, and their bodies deteriorate from lack of vitamins and minerals. Most prisoners never see the night sky, never see a star. With some exceptions, prison food makes some prisoners constantly ill, particulary, older prisoners. In the end. more fragile men and women die. Some prisoners feel forced to eat canned fish and honey bought for half their meals, purchased from a commissary mostly supplied with sugary foods and other poison snack foods.

Our political and economic elites after having politically disenfranchised us, made the conscious choice to, also, economically disenfranchise us, creating historically infamous income and health disparities, world-record off shoring of jobs and industries, financialization of the economy under private Fed domination rather than a domestic resurrection of technical and public education within a multi-faceted small industrial and new sustainable agricultural society with millions of small business serving all with millions of citizens involved in a multi-trillion dollar, open-ended sustainable energy, food, rail, water capture and piping, roads and bridges and coastal and other preparations for the coming sea rise, along with overarching plans for shared projects throughout our hemisphere. The latest statements by Trump about waterboarding and incarceration make him just more of the greater Human Filth that dominates so much of Amerca. I don't agree, but it is thought provoking that, recently, the famous French actor, Gerard Depardieu, called the United States "a nation of killers" Perhaps he was just talking about the Executive, Congress, Senate, State Department, the Judicial System, CIA, and Hillary Clinton and the other presidential contenders, sans Bernie Sanders. Let's hope so."