Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature

ACLU: Ending Modern-Day Debtors’ Prisons in America

From the American Civil Liberties Union:

Nearly two centuries ago, the United States formally abolished the incarceration of people who failed to pay off debts. Yet, recent years have witnessed the rise of modern-day debtors’ prisons—the arrest and jailing of poor people for failure to pay legal debts they can never hope to afford, through criminal justice procedures that violate their most basic rights.

State and local courts have increasingly attempted to supplement their funding by charging fees to people convicted of crimes, including fees for public defenders, prosecutors, court administration, jail operation, and probation supervision. And in the face of mounting budget deficits at the state and local level, courts across the country have used aggressive tactics to collect these unpaid fines and fees, including for traffic offenses and other low-level offenses. These courts have ordered the arrest and jailing of people who fall behind on their payments, without affording any hearings to determine an individual’s ability to pay or offering alternatives to payment such as community service.

In response, since 2009, the ACLU and ACLU affiliates across the country have been exposing and challenging modern-day debtors’ prisons, and urging governments and courts to pursue more rational and equitable approaches to criminal justice debt.

Debtors’ prisons impose devastating human costs. They lead to coercive debt collection, forcing poor people to forgo the basic necessities of life in order to avoid arrest and jailing. Debtors’ prisons waste taxpayer money and resources by jailing people who may never be able to pay their debts. This imposes direct costs on the government and further destabilizes the lives of poor people struggling to pay their debts and leave the criminal justice system behind. And most troubling, debtors’ prisons create a racially-skewed, two-tiered system of justice in which the poor receive harsher, longer punishments for committing the same crimes as the rich, simply because they are poor.

Ultimately, debtors’ prisons are not only unfair and insensible, they are also illegal. Imprisoning someone because she cannot afford to pay court-imposed fines or fees violates the Fourteenth Amendment promises of due process and equal protection under the law.

The ACLU and ACLU affiliates are uncovering how debtors’ prisons across the country undermine the criminal justice system and threaten civil rights and civil liberties. We are working in state legislatures and courts, and with judicial officials to end these practices once and for all.

A new ACLU report presents the results of a year-long investigation into modern-day debtors’ prisons in Louisiana, Michigan, Ohio, Washington, and Georgia. It shows that poor defendants are being jailed at increasingly alarming rates for failing to pay legal debts, creating a racially-skewed, two-tiered system of justice that violates the basic constitutional rights of poor people. The report documents the realities of today’s debtors’ prisons, and provides state and local governments and courts with recommendations for pursuing sensible and fair approaches to collecting criminal justice debt.

Copyright 2016 American Civil Liberties Union


5 comments on “ACLU: Ending Modern-Day Debtors’ Prisons in America

  1. sharondoubiago
    May 28, 2016

    My mother was raised in “the School,” i.e. the orphanage in Danville, VA because her father and grandfather were in debtors prison. I grew up hearing the horrors and injustices. I see now that this, along with other such horrors, made me the radical and poet that I am. It may have been abolished 2 centuries ago, but not in practice, at least in Virginia. This was in the 30s. My grandfather, Guy Clarke, died at 36 due to the poverty and prison conditions–and the fact that he was Cherokee.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. mlord102014
    May 27, 2016

    Thank you for this it is great,

    Liked by 1 person

  3. daniel r. cobb
    May 27, 2016

    Reblogged this on daniel r. cobb and commented:
    Knowledge is power. Thanks for this essay.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. daniel r. cobb
    May 27, 2016

    Debtors prisons set up a co-dependent relationship between the prison system and debtors by sabotaging the ability of debtors to ever recover and move on in their lives. These system becomes a leech on those least able to pay. How classic, and how despicable.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. tmezpoetry
    May 27, 2016

    Excellent! The county and state governments have become dependant on this revenue for operating expenses. It is essentially, the capitalist justice system.

    Liked by 1 person

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This entry was posted on May 27, 2016 by in Social Justice and tagged , .

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