Thousands are locked up in modern-day debtor prisons
BY SETH GALINSKY
Jail time as punishment for not paying debts or court fines is on the rise in the United States.
The practice varies widely throughout the country and there are no centralized records to measure the clear trend.
According to a report released this month by the Brennan Center for Justice, "increasing numbers of states are creating new pathways to imprisonment based solely on criminal justice debt."
In Florida 20 court fees have been added since 1996. The North Carolina government instituted a surcharge in 2009 for payment plans. Inmates in Pennsylvania are kept in jail even if otherwise eligible for parole, unless they pay a $60 fee, the report notes.
A 2010 report by the American Civil Liberties Union states that "pay-to-stay programs have proliferated," where convicted prisoners are charged for their jail time. In one of the latest additions in November last year, the Riverside County Board of Supervisors in California approved charging prisoners there $142.42 per day.
In at least 13 states, courts even impose fees for requesting legal counsel despite the Miranda rights provision that "if you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you." In Georgia, the "application fee" for a public defender is $50. Those who can't afford that are pressured into giving up their right to an attorney and pleading guilty. In Virginia the accused who are assigned a public defender can be charged more than $1,000 per felony charge.
Often, large fees are imposed for late payments of court fees and fines, which "effectively penalize people solely for being poor," notes the Brennan Center.
"Modern day debtors' prisons, that's exactly right," said Georgia attorney John Long in a July 20 phone interview. Long has helped win the release of several people jailed in Augusta, Ga., for inability to pay court fines and fees. Some owed money to privately owned probation companies assigned to "supervise" their probation, which was imposed because they couldn't immediately pay their fines. These probation company fees can amount to double or triple the original fine.
Incarceration for nonpayment of court debt is often carried out on the pretext of charges such as contempt of court, failure to appear or "willful refusal" to pay. Long has also filed a lawsuit challenging the practice as a violation of the U.S. Constitution, including the 14th Amendment right to equal protection.
Private probation companies
In Georgia, private probation companies also administer electronic monitoring and boast that it doesn't cost the government because the person being monitored pays.
Over the last decade these companies have mushroomed in the U.S. In Georgia, there are three dozen private probation companies operating in hundreds of courts. In Augusta alone, Long said, at any one time there can be 175 people charged with misdemeanors in jail for falling behind on payment to one of these outfits.
"The probation companies are nothing but bill collectors, but they can lock you up if you don't pay," notes Long. "They make payday lending look cheap."
A judge in Alabama temporarily shut down operations of a private probation company and the imposition of fees by the Harpersville Municipal Court July 11, saying it was a "judicially sanctioned extortion racket."
Jailed for outstanding bills
Working people are also being jailed across the country for unpaid bills to private companies.
"More than a third of all U.S. states allow borrowers who can't or won't pay to be jailed," according to the Wall Street Journal.
Officials in McIntosh County near Tulsa, Okla., issued 1,500 debt-related arrest warrants in 2010, although most don't result in jail time, the Journal said.
A March 2011 article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported on several Minnesota residents jailed for alleged outstanding bills, ranging from $300 owed to a lumber yard to unpaid credit card debt.
"Laws allowing for the arrest of someone for an unpaid debt are not new," the Tribune reported. "What is new is the rise of well-funded, aggressive and centralized collection firms … that buy up unpaid debt and use the courts to collect."