Debtors Prison Returns To America


by Daniel Jennings

Many Americans are serving weeks or months in jail simply because they are broke, despite a Supreme Court ruling that banned debtors prisons.

An investigation by National Public Radio (NPR) found that large numbers of Americans have been incarcerated because they lacked the cash to pay fines of as little as $25. In many cases, the involvement of courts only drove up their debt.

“They put me in jail for 10 days, and I just didn’t have the money,” Jared Thornburg said of police in Westminster, Colorado. Thornburg was jailed because he couldn’t cover a $306.25 fine for a traffic ticket. “They spent a lot more putting me in jail for 10 days than the amount I owed them.”

The offense that led to the fine and incarceration was making a wrong turn, Thornburg told The Denver Post. After being pulled over he was also cited for driving an unsafe vehicle.

To make matters worse, Thornburg lost his job at Taco Bell because he was in jail — meaning he was unable to go out and earn the money to pay the fine. The Brighton, Colorado, resident was jailed even though he was making progress and had paid $61.25 of the fine.

Pay or Go to Jail?

Thornburg was a victim of a practice the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has labeled “pay or serve.” In such a case, a judge tells a defendant that he or she must pay a fine or court fees immediately, or go tojail. The Supreme Court in 1983 banned debtors prisons unless the person “wilfully” refuses to pay.

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The NPR investigation shows that courts all over the country are using pay or serve to extort money from the poor. Some flagrant examples include:

  • Stephen Papa, a homeless Iraq War veteran who was sentenced to 22 days in jail in Grand Rapids, Michigan, because he could only pay half of a $50 fine payment. Papa was also slapped with $2,600 in court debt because of the case.
  • Kyle Dewitt was sentenced to three days in jail in Ionia, Michigan, because he couldn’t pay a $155 fine. His crime? He caught a fish out of season.
  • New Jersey resident Eddie Restrepo was facing $10,000 in fines for unpaid parking tickets, driving without insurance and driving without a license. Fortunately, a judge reduced Restrepo’s fine to $199.
  • A court in Westminster, Colorado, was sentencing people to 10 days in jail because they had unpaid court fines as low as $90. The Denver Post reported that it costs Westminster $70 a day to keep a person in jail. That means taxpayers were being charged $700 in an attempt to collect a $90 debt.
  • Tom Barrett, a homeless man in Augusta, Georgia, was sentenced to 12 months in jail because he couldn’t afford to pay a $12-a-day rental fee for an electronic ankle monitoring device. His crime? He had stolen a can of beer worth less than $2.

Some courts in Colorado have violated the state’s constitution which says “no person shall be imprisoned for debt” with pay or serve, the ACLU alleged.

“Jailing Colorado residents because they are too poor to pay their fines is a bad idea for multiple reasons,” Mark Silverstein, the legal director for the ACLU of Colorado, told The Denver Post. “It doesn’t get the fine paid. It wastes resources. It worsens poverty. It unfairly creates a two-tiered justice system.”

Courts as Money Machines

The NPR investigation found that defendants are regularly charged large amounts of money for “court services.” If they cannot afford to pay the fees, the poor are jailed, and some defendants still owe the money after serving the time.

Some of the fees a defendant can be hit with include:

  • $50 to $400 for a public defender.
  • Room and board for time they serve in jail.
  • A 12 percent interest rate on unpaid court fees in Washington State.
  • The cost of prosecuting them.
  • In Washington State, $250 if they want a jury trial.

In Allegan County, Michigan, Frederick Cunningham was ordered to pay $1,000 in court costs — $500 went to Cunningham’s court-appointed attorney and $500 went to the court…

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