Are we Moving Backwards?: Miss a Traffic Ticket, Go to Jail? the Return of Debtor Prison
It a rather sad state of affairs that there are enough links and sources on this topic I had to limit what I included. Most of all that one is entitled “Courts are not Revenue Centers.” Somehow, I was naive enough to think it was obvious.
I have paid no poll tax for six years. I was put into a jail once on this account, for one night; and, as I stood considering the walls of solid stone, two or three feet thick, the door of wood and iron, a foot thick, and the iron grating which strained the light, I could not help being struck with the foolishness of that institution which treated my as if I were mere flesh and blood and bones, to be locked up. I wondered that it should have concluded at length that this was the best use it could put me to, and had never thought to avail itself of my services in some way. I saw that, if there was a wall of stone between me and my townsmen, there was a still more difficult one to climb or break through before they could get to be as free as I was. I did nor for a moment feel confined, and the walls seemed a great waste of stone and mortar. I felt as if I alone of all my townsmen had paid my tax. They plainly did not know how to treat me, but behaved like persons who are underbred. In every threat and in every compliment there was a blunder; for they thought that my chief desire was to stand the other side of that stone wall. I could not but smile to see how industriously they locked the door on my meditations, which followed them out again without let or hindrance, and they were really all that was dangerous. As they could not reach me, they had resolved to punish my body; just as boys, if they cannot come at some person against whom they have a spite, will abuse his dog. I saw that the State was half-witted, that it was timid as a lone woman with her silver spoons, and that it did not know its friends from its foes, and I lost all my remaining respect for it, and pitied it.
AlterNet / By Alex Kane
Miss a Traffic Ticket, Go to Jail? The Return of Debtor Prison (Hard Times, USA)
Thought debtor prison ended in the 18th century? Think again.
February 3, 2013 |
Editor’s note: America has a long history of treating the poor like criminals, from legislation banning the transportation of poor people across state lines to anti-vagrancy laws that could land you in jail if you didn’t have a job or a home. We’ve come to rely on the criminal justice system to deal with the poor, even as more and more Americans fall into poverty. The following is part of a series that looks at the diverse ways poverty is criminalized in America, such as laws targeting the homeless, the surveillance of welfare recipients, the re-emergence of debtor’s prisons, and extreme policing tactics like stop-and-frisk.
Kawana Young, a single mother of two kids, was arrested in Michigan after failing to pay money she owed as a result of minor traffic offenses. She was recently laid off from her job, and could not pay the fees she owed because she couldn’t find another source of employment. So a judge sentenced her to three days in jail. In addition, Young was charged additional fees for being booked and for room and board for a place she did not want to be. In total, she has been jailed five times for being unable to pay her debts.
“It doesn’t make sense to jail people when they can’t pay because they definitely can’t pay while they’re in jail,” said Young.
Debtor prisons seem to belong in America’s past. But if you think the existence of prisons for people who can’t afford to pay their debts in the past, think again. Young’s ordeal, profiled in an American Civil Liberties Union report, began in 2005, after she was ticketed because she was driving without her license. It all came to a head in 2010, when Young was arrested because she did not pay off all of her debts from traffic violations. That arrest led to the judge ordering Young to jail due to her inability to pay off the money.
Prison time for poor people in debt remains something that is practiced throughout the United States, despite the fact that a 1983 Supreme Court decision ruled that a prisoner on probation who could not afford to pay his debts could not be thrown in jail for that reason. The practice of imprisoning people for debt is being fueled by the economic crash that has decimated state and city budgets. Debtor prisons are also on the rise thanks to the zeal of private companies that “file lawsuits against debtors and often fail to serve them with notice of court dates or intentionally serve them at incorrect addresses,” as the Brennan Center for Justice’s Inimai Chettiar noted. “When debtors do not show up, agencies procure arrest warrants from courts, leading to incarceration of the debtors. Bail is usually set at an amount equal to or higher than the original fees and fines they defendants couldn’t pay in the first place. All this has amounted to a return of debtors prisons.”
“If you’re lying on a sidewalk, whether you’re homeless or a millionaire, you’re in violation of the ordinance,” said Joseph Patner, a city attorney who represented St. Petersburg, Fla, in 2099 when six homeless people filed a lawsuit against the city.
In response to criticism from the ACLU over his decision to approve drug testing for welfare beneficiaries, Florida Gov. Rick Scott told CNN the law encourages “personal accountability.”
In an essay published this week in The Guardian, Barbara Ehrenreich, author of the New York Times bestselling book “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America,” tells the story of a 62-year-old disabled veteran who was dragged from a homeless shelter to jail because he had an outstanding warrant for “criminal trespassing,” which is how Washington, D.C., defines sleeping on the streets.
Poor Land in Jail as Companies Add Huge Fees for Probation this article about Gina Ray was mentioned in the Alternet article.
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.
Held: The right of an indigent defendant in a criminal trial to have the assistance of counsel is a fundamental right essential to a fair trial, and petitioner’s trial and conviction without the assistance of counsel violated the Fourteenth Amendment. Betts v. Brady, 316 U.S. 455, overruled. Pp. 336-345.