A New Kind of Debtor Prison

Nicholas Kristoff, the thoughtful and socially conscious NYT columnist wrote eloquently about what could be called debtors’ prison not long ago drawing attention to the fact that people who can’t afford to pay fines are jailed instead, a system that ensures they won’t be able to pay. Serving time puts one’s job in jeopardy, should one have a job because many of those who are fined are homeless, for example being fined for sleeping on a park bench. The system also places the children of single parents at risk, and can mean eviction for some. Still nation- wide the practice continues and is often used as a means for certain localities to raise money. But a few days prior to Kristoff’s column, the LA Times had run a similar article in this case drawing attention to the fact that the ACLU had fought and won several lawsuits trying to outlaw the practice. They have won in Richland, Washington, Biloxi, Miss., Colorado Springs, Colo. and East Pointe, Mich. We might all remember that the issue of jailing people who can’t pay fines was an issue in Ferguson, Mo, one the federal government made the city discontinue. The aim of the ACLU lawsuits is to have the practice discontinued everywhere. Given the resistance of certain cities, the ACLU wins are no small feat. They are unconstitutional given a precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court that defendants can’t be jailed simply for being poor. That of course helped the ACLU’s case in Benton County (where Richland, Washington is). The victory included ability-to-pay hearings, payment plans and if possible jail alternatives such as community service. When you read about people trying to get back on their feet, following perhaps drug offenses, and given that interest compounds the debt, it’s easy to wonder if that’s enough. In Richland incarceration gives the inmate a $50 a day credit towards their debt. Should they choose being on a work crew, maybe cleaning streets or doing gardening chores, they are credited $80. When the debt accumulated is thousands of dollars and people work at minimum wage, perhaps considering debt forgiveness is in order. The issue may not affect us directly, yet, it nevertheless is an example of how to create a more just society.

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