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Miss a Traffic Ticket, Go to Jail? The Return of Debtor Prison

Society & Culture  (tags: abuse, americans, children, crime, culture, death, dishonesty, education, ethics, family, freedoms, government, law, media, police, politics, rights, safety, society )

- 1955 days ago -
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-->

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Kit B (276)
Sunday February 10, 2013, 1:32 pm
Photo: alternet

Thought debtor prison ended in the 18th century? Think again.

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.”

A 2010 report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lays out the breadth of this problem. Titled “In For a Penny: The Rise of America’s New Debtor Prisons,” the report examines how “day after day, indigent defendants are imprisoned for failing to pay legal debts they can never hope to manage. In many cases, poor men and women end up jailed or threatened with jail though they have no lawyer representing them.”

The practice of throwing people into jail got more attention last year due to a New York Times report examining “the mushrooming of fines and fees levied by money-starved towns across the country and the for-profit businesses that administer the system,” with the result being “growing numbers of poor people...ending up jailed and in debt for minor infractions.”

Ethan Bronner, a reporter for the New York Times, profiled 31-year-old Gina Ray, who was fined $179 for a speeding ticket. Ray did not show up in court--she says the ticket had the wrong date on it--and her license was revoked. So the next time Ray got into trouble with the law was even worse. She was pulled over, and found to be driving without a license. “By then her fees added up to more than $1,500. Unable to pay, she was handed over to a private probation company and jailed — charged an additional fee for each day behind bars,” wrote Bronner.

The phenomenon of debtor prison creates a two-tiered justice system. For poor people unable to pay up money they owe from traffic infractions or other debts, jail becomes home for longer.

For the rich, it’s a different story. “Pay-or-stay sentences are no choice for the poor,” the ACLU’s Michael Steinberg told The Detroit News. “They translate to rich people writing a check and going home and poor people going to jail. It's a modern-day debtor prison. This two-tiered system of justice is shameful, it's a waste of resources, it is unconstitutional, and it must be changed.”

Additionally, the two-tiered justice system means that poor people often have to pay even more than their initial fees and fines, due to additional booking and jail fees. This leads to a toxic cycle where poor people are arrested for fees they can’t pay and are then walloped with even more financial obligations. And going to jail disrupts life for these poor people, making it even more difficult to find a job that would help them pay off their debt.
***More information within links of article at VISIT SITE***

By: Alex Kane | alternet

Angelika R (143)
Sunday February 10, 2013, 3:34 pm
Then WHY do you have a SCOTUS in the first place? ..and a constitution...and..and... OMG.
Looks like the "War on" - list needs extensions.. And WHO wanted more privatisation of prisons..? go figure

Kit B (276)
Sunday February 10, 2013, 4:10 pm

Good questions - I wish I could answer them.

Theodore Shayne (56)
Sunday February 10, 2013, 4:28 pm
Yikes. What's next a mass herding into the FEMA facilities?

Rose Becke (141)
Sunday February 10, 2013, 4:59 pm
Privatizations of prisons is wrong

pam w (139)
Sunday February 10, 2013, 5:50 pm

. (0)
Sunday February 10, 2013, 5:53 pm
noted with thanks for the posting

Angelika R (143)
Sunday February 10, 2013, 6:29 pm
Kit, oh well, at least the last question can be answered..., no?

JL A (281)
Sunday February 10, 2013, 6:40 pm
The equivalent of speed traps for out-of-towners to make money and to make others choose to move so the community doesn't have evidence of how they have failed as a society.

Luca Lotto (0)
Monday February 11, 2013, 2:58 am
well, I guess sooner or later they'll found out that this method cost them more. Some already have.
Why not let them do community work to get those bills paid...

Autumn S (151)
Monday February 11, 2013, 3:52 am
Noted, that is just outrageous! I am again wondering about the "justice system"

Giana Peranio - Paz (398)
Monday February 11, 2013, 4:14 am
Noted! Where is real justice? Why is everything all wrong? Where is basic human logic and compassion?

Kath P (9)
Monday February 11, 2013, 4:21 am
Guess the next logical step will be work houses.....

Linda R (17)
Monday February 11, 2013, 4:23 am
This does not surprise me at all. The poor have always been victimized because there is no one to defend them. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. It is still difficult to understand how our system is this broken and how nothing has been done to fix it.

Past Member (0)
Monday February 11, 2013, 5:00 am
Set an example! If you break the law, be ready for the consequences. Since when do we stand up for anarchy ~ on any level?

Jaime Alves (52)
Monday February 11, 2013, 5:07 am

Erika M (0)
Monday February 11, 2013, 5:18 am
This is messed up.

paul m (93)
Monday February 11, 2013, 5:21 am


Past Member (0)
Monday February 11, 2013, 6:16 am
Noted , Thanks Kit .

Daniel Partlow (179)
Monday February 11, 2013, 6:41 am
We don't need to go back in time to debters prison! We also don't need to privatize our prisons. Stop locking up marajuana users and other minor criminals and fry those hard case proven criminals and we'd have more room for legitimate criminals who should be serving sentences!

Monday February 11, 2013, 6:43 am
Not surprising, most of the worlds political systems thrive on chaos.

Nancy M (169)
Monday February 11, 2013, 1:00 pm
This doesn't surprise me at all and I do find it disgusting. Life is regressive. The poor pay more for everything. Very unfortunate i deed.

As for our Scotus- Well- they've been bought, haven't they?

Craig Zimmerman (86)
Monday February 11, 2013, 2:25 pm
Thanks for posting this. Unfortunately, there has always been a two-tiered American justice system: One for the poor and one for the wealthy. Notice that not even a single Wall Street banker has gone to prison.

Christina G (11)
Monday February 11, 2013, 2:51 pm
this is what happens when prisons become BIG BUSINESS - they need to keep thinking up excuses to put people there to justify getting more $$$$$$ and they fet US to pay for it! Very clever for them...

Mary Donnelly (47)
Monday February 11, 2013, 3:22 pm
Great post and comments. Thanks Kit.

Birgit W (160)
Monday February 11, 2013, 3:49 pm

Carmen S (611)
Monday February 11, 2013, 4:47 pm
thanks Kit, this needs to be stopped, it's doing nothing but lining the pockets of the people in charge

Christopher M. (4)
Monday February 11, 2013, 6:34 pm
maybe they could sell the car to pay off the ticket

Christopher M. (4)
Monday February 11, 2013, 6:35 pm
Taking poor people across state lines? Busted. I took my girlfriend to Maryland and West Virginia.

Winnie A (179)
Monday February 11, 2013, 6:52 pm

Joanne Dixon (38)
Monday February 11, 2013, 8:22 pm
Don't feed the trolls please. Thank you.

Past Member (0)
Monday February 11, 2013, 8:38 pm
I agree with Carmen cheers Kit

Lois Jordan (63)
Tuesday February 12, 2013, 2:04 pm
Several months ago I read an article about debtor's prisons returning in America and mentioned it to my family....who didn't believe it could really happen. So, the GOP has wanted to take us all backwards in time, and it looks very much like they're succeeding. How is this being allowed to happen?!

Past Member (0)
Tuesday February 12, 2013, 2:09 pm
Excellent, though depressing, article. Noted. One really has to wonder how many steps backwards this nation will take before it decides to move forward again.

Shirley B (5)
Wednesday February 13, 2013, 5:51 pm
And wall street thiieves and worse go free. Justice must hang her head in shame.
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