"The practice is called "pay or stay" — pay the fine or stay in jail."
June 4, 2015 8:26 AM Subscribe
Supreme Court Ruling Not Enough To Prevent Debtors Prisons Judge Robert Swisher, a Superior Court judge in Benton County, says he'll make judgments based on how people present themselves in court. "They come in wearing expensive jackets," he says referring to defendants who wear NFL football team jackets, "or maybe a thousand dollars' worth of tattoos on their arms. And they say, 'I'm just living on handouts.' " If the jacket or tattoos were a gift, he tells the defendants they should have asked the giver for the cash to pay their court fees instead.
Human Rights Watch
The United States Supreme Court has ruled that a person sentenced to probation cannot then be incarcerated simply for failing to pay a fine that they genuinely cannot afford. Yet many misdemeanor courts routinely jail probationers who say they cannot afford to pay what they owe—and they do so in reliance on the assurances of for-profit companies with a financial stake in every single one of those cases.... In Mississippi, a middle-aged woman was fined $377 for driving without a valid license. Months later, she called the court in tears because her company probation officer was threatening to have her jailed over $500 in unpaid supervision fees she said she could not afford. At the time she was trying to make ends meet working the night shift at a local gas station. Court officials told Human Rights Watch that she had already paid off her entire fine to the court, but still owed money to her probation company—and that the court had in no way authorized the probation company to threaten her with arrest.NBC - Collections companies as for-profit probation companies
In these instances, courts and municipalities contract with traditional debt-collection agencies, often the same firms that collect on credit card or health care debt. The companies, in turn, often tack additional one-time or monthly service fees onto debtors’ bills.NPR (also the link above the fold)
Other companies have moved beyond collections work to become a part of the criminal justice system itself by overseeing probation. Over the past 15 years, these for-profit probation companies have emerged as important players in court systems across the country, particularly in the South.
GUILTY AND CHARGED: KEY FINDINGS
NPR's yearlong investigation included more than 150 interviews with lawyers, judges, offenders in and out of jail, government officials, advocates and other experts. It also included a nationwide survey — with help from NYU's Brennan Center for Justice and the National Center for State Courts — of which states are charging defendants and offenders fees. Findings of this investigation include:
- Defendants are charged for a long list of government services that were once free — including ones that are constitutionally required.
- Impoverished people sometimes go to jail when they fall behind paying these fees.
- Since 2010, 48 states have increased criminal and civil court fees.
- Many courts are struggling to interpret a 1983 Supreme Court ruling protecting defendants from going to jail because they are too poor to pay their fines.
- Technology, such as electronic monitors, aimed at helping defendants avoid jail time is available only to those who can afford to pay for it [emphasis mine]
A state-by-state survey conducted by NPR found that defendants are charged for many government services that were once free, including those that are constitutionally required. For example:
- In at least 43 states and the District of Columbia, defendants can be billed for a public defender.
- In at least 41 states, inmates can be charged room and board for jail and prison stays.
- In at least 44 states, offenders can get billed for their own probation and parole supervision.
- And in all states except Hawaii, and the District of Columbia, there's a fee for the electronic monitoring devices defendants and offenders are ordered to wear.
"Pay-or-serve" warrants authorize a debtor’s arrest. Once in custody, the debtor must either pay the full amount of the fine or "pay down" the fine by serving time in jail at a daily rate set by the court. Wheat Ridge and Northglenn set the rate at $50 per day, while Westminster converts all unpaid fines into ten-day sentences. None of the three cities has a process to determine whether the debtor has the ability to pay, as federal and state law require. [emphasis mine]
In For A Penny: The Rise of America's New Debtors' Prisons
This ACLU report presents the results of a yearlong investigation into modern-day "debtors' prisons," and shows that poor defendants are being jailed at increasingly alarming rates for failing to pay legal debts they can never hope to afford. The report details how across the country, in the face of mounting budget deficits, states are more aggressively going after poor people who have already served their criminal sentences. These modern-day debtors' prisons impose devastating human costs, waste taxpayer money and resources, undermine our criminal justice system, are racially skewed, and create a two-tiered system of justice.
This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments