Sessions Is Okay With People Going to Jail for Being Poor

Debtor’s prisons may have been banned in the United States about 200 years ago, but in actuality, there’s still plenty of Americans who wind up in jail simply because they’re too poor. As of 2016, about one out of every three states still operated some form of debtor’s prison.

During the Obama presidency, the Department of Justice issued some guidelines to courts in an effort to prevent this shady practice from going any further. Now that Attorney General Jeff Sessions is at the helm, however, he has thrown out these suggestions, making it easier for people to be wrongfully sentenced to jail for not having money.

Sessions’ stated excuse is that getting rid of documents like these puts a stop to “the long-standing abuse of issuing rules by simply publishing a letter or posting a web page.”

That explanation would make more sense if existing laws spelled out how to avoid sending poor people to jail for being unable to pay fines. Since that’s a practice that has continued, providing judges with better guidance is one tool for alleviating this problem.

The Obama-era document implored courts to take a close look at their own procedures to verify that people who were jailed for failing to pay fines were only being locked up after it was clear they were “willfully” not paying and not because they lacked the funds to actually do so.

By rescinding this document, Sessions is implicitly notifying courts that he doesn’t consider this issue a problem and that courts may carry on with this unlawful practice without interference from the DOJ.

Keep in mind that a lot of the people getting locked up for failure to pay fines are originally cited for tiny infractions like not keeping their lawns up to city code. Even citations like this can put poor citizens in debt to the government for hundreds of dollars, money that compounds for failure to pay.

Speaking to NPR, Peter Edelman of Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality pointed out that law enforcement is actually incentivized to ticket for minor infractions because it brings in money to police departments. Judges and prosecutors also have an incentive to ensure the accused are found guilty since their salaries are often funded with this money, as well.

“It’s a terrible system, if you would call it a system,” Edelman concluded about this readily evident conflict of interest.

It’s hardly a surprise that Sessions is apathetic to seeing poor people locked up considering the outward hostility this administration has showed to people living in poverty. The GOP tax reform legislation was a gift to the rich, with services provided to the poor on the chopping block next.

Sessions has faced accusations of racism throughout his career. Call it a coincidence if you will, but modern day debtor’s prisons disproportionately affect communities of color.

No one should wind up in jail just because they don’t have money. Obama’s document may seem superfluous to Sessions, but if it helps judges to remember their responsibilities when sentencing, all the more reason to keep it on the record.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

63 comments

Amanda M
Amanda M3 months ago

Ebenezer 2.0 (aka Jeff Sessions) should try spending SIX MONTHS living on a working-class paycheck and see just how easy it is to make ends meet and how jailing someone simply because they don't have the financial means to pay a fine is actually the WORST thing you can do to someone. It's the same "logic" that causes the judicial system to impose impossibly high bail for a member of the working class (which is a violation of the 8th Amendment, FYI!) when they get arrested for any charge. And people wonder why one of my rules for life (Rule #31) is "Systems only work for the wealthy and well-connected!"

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Lorraine Andersen
Lorraine Andersen4 months ago

Would be nice if Trump used some of the 18 billion for the wall to help the poor and the veterans in this country instead.

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Richard A
Richard A4 months ago

Mike Chrissie, so now, speaking the truth is hate?

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Joan E
Joan E4 months ago

Karen, I'm glad you had a good neighbor who stood up for you. We need to be there for others, whether they are the same race or religion or sexual preference as we are. We need to make our nation caring and sane again.

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Joan E
Joan E4 months ago

Sessions is a lying, hateful, racist Russian-collaborating traitor.

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Carol C
Carol C4 months ago

This racist war against the poor is complete outrage. We need a revolution in 2018.

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Karen H
Karen H4 months ago

I probably would've ended up in "Debtor's Prison" if a neighbor hadn't intervened. I was in the hospital and the city came around to give me a fine for not cutting the grass. A neighbor explained to them that I was in the hospital (they didn't care) and also cut my grass. Without that help, I would've had a fine, and as I'm on a fixed income, I wouldn't have been able to pay it.

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Danii P
Danii P4 months ago

Thank you

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Janet B
Janet B4 months ago

Thanks

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Mary B
Mary B4 months ago

And once we have a decent progressive democratic socialst government for the People's protection and well being in charge, hold all the thieve like Sessions accountable, fine them down to poverty level income and put them in their own debtors prison for a year then force them into a year of work, not of their choosing.

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