First abolished in the 1830’s, debtor’s prisons have made a new emergence in the face of budget woes in many communities across the country. Cash trapped municipalities have begun to partner with for-profit agencies for probation officer duties and collection of county debts. A Debtor’s Prison is a jail-time for those who are unable to pay a debt. This new business structure has resulted in aggressive collection tactics similar to those used when collecting unsecured debts like credit card delinquencies. Today, the new twist is for-profit agencies are not only threatening jail time, but judges are making those threats a reality in counties across the county, such as this story out of Mississippi this year A man was arrested for not paying debt.
In response to this disturbing trend the ACLU has been launching lawsuits in an effort to curtail these illegal practices. Counties in Alabama, Washington, Georgia and Mississippi have been sued for practices that are deemed to be running a “debtor’s prison.”
Who Is at Risk? Misdemeanors Included
Since 2010 many counties have stepped up debt collection efforts to offset budget deficits. This has resulted in an increase of violations and tickets being issued for things like speeding, not wearing a seat belts and even a non-working tail light. These infractions are not limited to drivers but can also include parking, jaywalking and other minor offences. The court then tacks on their fees and the collection/probation company adds their fees to the balance owed. Now a simple ticket, when not paid promptly, can result in hundreds of dollars in additional fees and the threat of jail time if you are incapable of paying the bill within a few weeks.
Failure to settle up with the county, or a missed court date (even if you did not know about it) could result in a warrant being issued for your arrest. When the Sherriff shows up at your door you are given the option of paying the fee in full or going to jail. These practices have resulted in millions of fines being collected in a few short years by requiring the poor to forgo basic necessities to fill a counties budget needs.
For those living paycheck to paycheck, missing a week of work will often lead to job loss and the financial situation deteriorates quickly as bills are no longer able to be paid. Court fees can continue to mount and the inability to pay is increased further. Courts are attempting to collect for prosecution costs, jail costs, court appointed attorney fees, and probation officer costs, to name a few.
Debtor’s Prison Practice Is Illegal
In 1983 the Supreme Court ruled that it was illegal to jail citizens for inability to pay and that a hearing was required to assess your financial health. If deemed indigent, then alternative payment options such as community service must be offered.
The challenge with the current system is that the individual might be jailed for a week or more without ever seeing a judge. A hearing would give them access to a court appointed attorney, an evaluation of their current financial situation, and alternatives to jail time for the unpaid fees.
While the ACLU has had success in winning lawsuits and changing practices in certain counties, the widespread problem is harder to address. If filing lawsuits is the only agent for change then it will take years before all counties with these practices are held accountable.
It is unfortunate that counties are trying to balance their budgets on the backs of the poor, who are least able to afford such practices. As citizens, understanding your legal rights will help protect you from illegal practices by both businesses and government officials.