Thursday, October 14, 2010

Slavery By Another name: Some States Bring Back "Debtors' Prisons"

There have been two recent publications that have noted a resuscitation of history in America. The first called Criminal Justice Debt: A Barrier to Reentry, published by the NYU's Brennan Center for Justice documents that states have begun to mandate “user fees” on individuals with criminal convic­tions. These fees have a negative impact on communities traditionally burdened with high incarceration rates by the criminal justice system by making new routes to prison for people unable to pay their debts.This report looked at practices in fifteen states with the highest prison populations and examined mostly the proliferation of “user fees.” These are financial obligations imposed not for any traditional criminal justice purpose but rather to fund tight state budgets. Eight of the fif­teen states suspend driving privileges for missed debt payments and seven require individuals to pay off criminal justice debt be­fore they can regain their eligibility to vote. In all fifteen states, criminal justice debt and associated collection practices can damage an individuals credit.

Fourteen also utilize “poverty penalties” – piling on additional late fees and interest when individuals are unable to pay their debts. The state of Alabama charges a 30 percent collection fee and Florida allows for private debt collectors to tack on a 40 percent surcharge to collect underlying debt.

The second report, released by the American Civil Liberties Union is called In For a Penny: The Rise of America's New Debtors' Prisons. It presents the findings of a year long investigation into modern-day debtors' prisons. In essence the practice of incarcerating people because they cannot afford to pay their legal debts.

Although such practices are unconstitutional, the practice of debtors' prisons is growing across the country although the Supreme Court prohibited imprisoning those who are too poor to pay their legal debts more than twenty years ago.

In some states, people, mainly men and women whom are poor, being unable to pay their legal fees such as charges for use of public defenders, which is a guaranteed right in the United States - becomes a criminal act. Meaning that their only crime is being poor or living in poverty. Debtor prisons are most popular in the states with the largest prison populations like California, Michigan and Alabama.

The ACLU report cites several startling examples. Gregory White, a homeless man in Louisiana, was arrested for stealing $39 worth of food from a grocery store. He was billed $339 in legal fees. When he could not pay, he was arrested and spent 198 days in jail, which cost the city $35,000.

Percy Dear, of New Orleans suffers from epilepsy and schizophrenia. He was arrested for begging in 2007 and was sentenced with either paying an immediate fine of $200 or spending 20 days in jail. In Georgia, Ora Lee Hurley owed $705 in fines from a 1990 drug possession conviction. She stayed in jail for eight months for failing to pay.

These are examples of how the economy and justice systems are seeking ways to criminalize being poor. Although in Bearden v. Georgia, the Supreme Court ruled that such practices violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, states all across the country use debtor prisons to impart unequal justice on the poor, in particular African Americans, under the guise of making money.


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