"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.

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.
NPR (also the link above the fold)
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.
ACLU
"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.
posted by sio42 (54 comments total) 61 users marked this as a favorite
 
Wow, racist AND poor-shaming! With a system like this, who needs enemies?
posted by Kitteh at 8:29 AM on June 4, 2015 [13 favorites]


The charges against the jubilant audience members for disturbing the peace at a Mississippi graduation are what got me looking into this. They face a fine of $500 and up to 6 months jail time. I remember from Ferguson how people who can't pay often end up in jail.

I'm not sure that travesty is a strong enough word for ending up in jail because you were celebrating someone's walking across the stage to receive their high school diploma.
posted by sio42 at 8:29 AM on June 4, 2015 [33 favorites]




I'm not sure that travesty is a strong enough word for ending up in jail because you were celebrating someone's walking across the stage to receive their high school diploma.

Its not strong enough, because this is "the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims." The right word is terrorism.
posted by frijole at 8:34 AM on June 4, 2015 [10 favorites]


he says referring to defendants who wear NFL football team jackets, "or maybe a thousand dollars' worth of tattoos on their arms.

This makes sense. After all, if you can only be poor if you've always been poor. It's not possible to have been doing OK in the past and then recently fell on hard times. That never happens in America. EVER.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 8:37 AM on June 4, 2015 [51 favorites]


I was on probation once in my early 20s (I did something really dumb) and it took me forever to pay off my fine because of the fees tacked on by the probation office. I was a barista making just a hair over minimum wage, having to make sure any shifts I was scheduled for didn't collide with my appearance at the probation office because they did not take kindly to you asking if you could meet on your day off, and I was genuinely scared as to what would happen if I came up short every visit. This is a fucked up and rotten system that punishes people who are already living hand to mouth.
posted by Kitteh at 8:38 AM on June 4, 2015 [21 favorites]


Comedian John Oliver, much beloved by Mefites, also devoted time to this issue recently.
posted by seasparrow at 8:41 AM on June 4, 2015 [4 favorites]


This makes sense. After all, if you can only be poor if you've always been poor. It's not possible to have been doing OK in the past and then recently fell on hard times. That never happens in America. EVER.

Well then they can just sell their tattoos, right?
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 8:43 AM on June 4, 2015 [29 favorites]


Kitteh - i believe it but i can't believe it. they expected you to take unpaid time off from work to make a meeting that was costing you money? that is insane. this whole system is fucked.
posted by sio42 at 8:45 AM on June 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


sio42 - Yup. I occasionally managed to score an appointment that coincided with a day off but a lot of times I just couldn't. I would plead my case, saying that I was working, and it was like, "Nope, work it out with your boss, but if you don't make it in, I put you down as a no-show and no-pay. That happens again, we gotta report you."
posted by Kitteh at 8:48 AM on June 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


La majestueuse égalité des lois, qui interdit au riche comme au pauvre de coucher sous les ponts, de mendier dans les rues et de voler du pain.
posted by Talez at 8:49 AM on June 4, 2015 [45 favorites]


Probation officers are the worst. My one crim file that I've done soured me on at least that one. Petty little bureaucrats more concerned with punishment than enabling a return to society.
posted by Lemurrhea at 8:52 AM on June 4, 2015 [4 favorites]


$2600 for climbing onto the roof of an abandoned building? WTF?
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:00 AM on June 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


It's not strong enough, because this is "the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims." The right word is terrorism.

Abuses like this are one of the reasons terrorism is so commonly invoked as a threat by elites in the US, in any case - Guy Debord:

The story of terrorism is written by the state and it is therefore highly instructive… compared with terrorism, everything else must be acceptable, or in any case more rational and democratic.
posted by ryanshepard at 9:03 AM on June 4, 2015 [6 favorites]


Welcome to Victorian England. We are just behind you, America, on our way back there.
posted by marienbad at 9:10 AM on June 4, 2015 [7 favorites]


Okay, so:
-If you show up to court looking like you bought your clothes at the thrift store, you're not taking court seriously enough and probably deserve punishment.
-If you show up to court looking nice, you should have pawned your clothes to pay your debts.
posted by almostmanda at 9:11 AM on June 4, 2015 [43 favorites]


The solution, almostmanda, is obviously for the court to require you to optionally rent a nice suit from one of the court vendors on your way into court. Sorry for the long line.
posted by jeffamaphone at 9:13 AM on June 4, 2015 [11 favorites]


-If you show up to court looking like you bought your clothes at the thrift store, you're not taking court seriously enough and probably deserve punishment.
-If you show up to court looking nice, you should have pawned your clothes to pay your debts.
This is very close to what's called Morton's Fork.
posted by adamrice at 9:17 AM on June 4, 2015 [13 favorites]


I'm sure when this judge applied for a mortgage, the banker assessed his suit, said "Clearly, you don't need a mortgage if you can afford that suit!" and promptly shredded his application.
posted by almostmanda at 9:18 AM on June 4, 2015 [10 favorites]


Maybe they could make a law that anyone that is too fat legally can't be considered poor either, I mean, they can afford to buy food right? Then we could just throw all the fat poor people in jail. While we're at it, if you're charging them for their stay in jail, make sure that there is no possible way for them to pay off that debt, then we can have people that are fined for jaywalking in jail forever!
posted by blue_beetle at 9:19 AM on June 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


that is insane. this whole system is fucked.

The legal system, or just the U.S. in general?
posted by Thorzdad at 9:21 AM on June 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


meh, i guess all of it, ya know?

i should probably start hoarding water and cat food. and toilet paper.
posted by sio42 at 9:35 AM on June 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


The tattoos thing astounds me. Like, I don't agree with it, but I was expecting the jacket thing to be, like, "sell the jacket, then", or whatever. But then to jump straight to an example that you think makes people look irresponsible but is literally something that has no cash value and is actually, literally impossible to transfer? And on top of that, something people tend to accumulate in bits and pieces over time?

He's not even trying to actually come up with real luxury goods for his imaginary welfare royalty. He's just naming things that he thinks all reputable people will agree with him are signs of Being A Hoodlum, and therefore everybody who matters will be okay with this. I'm accustomed, I guess, to this sort of thing involving less-screamingly-audible dog whistles.
posted by Sequence at 9:36 AM on June 4, 2015 [18 favorites]


i'd kinda like to know that judge thinks is a $1000 worth of ink.

seriously.

i would $100 that he had no idea how much a plain black ink calligraphy tat of "mom" costs vs a full color sleeve.

maybe that artist and person came to a barter arrangement because neither of them have cash because they're both fucking paying off fines to private probation ripoffs.
posted by sio42 at 9:39 AM on June 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


It's the legal system's version of "Why are you hitting yourself...why are you hitting yourself...why are you hitting yourself..."
posted by briank at 9:40 AM on June 4, 2015 [10 favorites]


And on top of that, something people tend to accumulate in bits and pieces over time?

Not to mention that a tattoo you got as a "gift" probably came from a tattoo artist who owed you a favor or wanted practice, not your friend literally taking you to the tattoo parlor and paying the regular price in cash for you.
posted by almostmanda at 9:43 AM on June 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


I think there's kind of a weird tough situation, because it is literally impossible to tell whether people can pay their fines or not, but we ask judges to do so. For example - they talk about someone on veteran's benefits. But someone who's 100% disabled may be spending their time buying expensive videogames and not paying off fines (this is not made up, I have friends who have done this because they're irresponsible infantry vets). At the same time, someone who is working and can on paper afford to pay their fines may not be able to when their bills are accounted for - especially if they have kids. Or maybe they could afford to pay it, but then the lights would go off, and if the lights go off too often, someone can take their children.

Really I think the solution is to move away from fines and move towards community service for these kinds of small crimes. It takes the burden off the judge to figure out who can pay, and creates less cash incentives for police to arrest people.
posted by corb at 9:43 AM on June 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


And this, among many other reasons, is why I looked at my life in America several years ago and decided to DTMA before my children who - in an act of karma/divine retribution - will undoubtedly be as stupid as me and probably wind up dealing with this shit as opposed to my Good Old Days when the cops just stole your weed and wrote you a speeding ticket.

The American economic and judicial systems are an existential threat.
posted by digitalprimate at 9:44 AM on June 4, 2015 [10 favorites]


However, the Supreme Court didn't tell courts how to determine what it means to "willfully" not pay. So it's left to judges to make the sometimes difficult calculations.

So it gets left to the judge's discretion and if you have some judges with poor discretion you should get rid of the judge and not legislate restrictive guidelines.

Clearly in some instances there are deadbeats who just refuse to pay and it makes sense to give judges the ability to make that call and the tools to make the miscreant come correct.
posted by three blind mice at 9:49 AM on June 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


It seems the whole system is just antiquated beyond belief.

People become petty criminals because it benefits them for some reason. Probably because they are unemployed or underemployed.

There's another thread where a ton of mefites gladly discussed stealing from their minimum wage employers!

But ya know America let's keep shooting ourselves in the foot when the house is on fire. Or some other completely non sensical metaphor.
posted by sio42 at 9:51 AM on June 4, 2015


Although I fit into most of the categories of privilege, I grew up poor in a family that had been poor / at the margins of society for generations.1 As a result of growing up in this context I've developed the social reflexes required to instinctively avoid situations wherein I might get fined/imprisoned for doing something that well-off people from well-off families would consider to be safe and only semi-naughty fun, things like urban exploration, celebrating "too loud" at a graduation ceremony, and so forth. When I read the second Golden Compass book, I recognized myself a little in the character Will from that book, whose magic superpower can more or less be summed up as "urban invisibility" — both Will and I are very, very good at not being noticed in a crowd, and at quietly slipping away when things might get dicey.

So I guess long story short, I have the habits that power would rather like members of the underclass to have. I am the very model of the modern poor American. These habits generally boil down to:
  1. seeing threats everywhere, because, if you're in the underclass, there really are threats everywhere, and,
  2. keeping your head down, because if you assert yourself in any way that draws attention to you, the threats will get you.
Although these habits are in the short term useful for keeping the police / the system from noticing you and shaking you down, they are an absolute nightmare to have when you're attempting to meaningfully interact with people not from the underclass, or work in non-underclass jobs that involve leadership and initiative-taking.

As I see it, if this is not by design it might as well be. Police terror keeps us down in two ways: by arresting us when they notice us taking risks or showing initiative, and by additionally socializing us to never take risks or show initiative — thus making it really hard for us to thrive in non-underclass positions should we ever attempt to compete with the children of wealth.

As a white man who happened to get born poor, I only see the corners of this system. It is immediately obvious that the police apply it several thousand times harder to my black and brown neighbors, because the system fears and loathes them more than it fears and loathes me. What it does to me is inspire treatable anxiety; what it does to them is undeniably best understood as slavery by another name.

1: Or at least, I think my family was poor for generations on both sides. It's impossible to trace my dad's family back past his parents, though. I never met them; they died a long time before I was born. Presumably, given what it is possible to find out about them, they were involved in some sort of criminal activity and at some point found it necessary to take assumed names, explaining why we can't find birth certificates or any other official documents related to them. Almost certainly they were just your standard Appalachian moonshiners during Prohibition who took assumed identities when the heat got too hot or whatever. Sometimes, though, I have fun little fantasies about them having been, like, early Soviet sleeper agents.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 10:09 AM on June 4, 2015 [34 favorites]


probation company

The fact that those two words are even allowed to be next to each other is just... what the everlasting shit.
posted by Behemoth at 10:38 AM on June 4, 2015 [17 favorites]


"Probation company" is getting very close to "Libertarian Police Department"
posted by lmfsilva at 10:49 AM on June 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'm sure when this judge applied for a mortgage, the banker assessed his suit, said "Clearly, you don't need a mortgage if you can afford that suit!" and promptly shredded his application.

Unless he was dressed as a poor person, in which case he wouldn't have been able to afford to pay a mortgage.

In reality, I can tell you that at any reasonably large bank (or at least the large bank I work for) the banker that takes the application has nothing at all do to with whether it gets approved or denied and only acts as an intermediary between the underwriter and the applicant. The underwriter, likewise, cannot have ANY contact at all with the customer. Heck, we'd hide the customer's name too if we could.

It's not only to ensure compliance with fair lending laws but it makes business sense. That way, the approval or denial is based only on the information in the application in case someone's subconscious biases lead them approve applications that they shouldn't or turn down ones they should approve.

Maybe we should start doing the same thing with judges.
posted by VTX at 10:50 AM on June 4, 2015


Today I Learned that some of the people who make ignorant comments on newspaper web sites might be Superior Court judges. Scary.
posted by rocket88 at 11:01 AM on June 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


The job of the police, and of law enforcement agencies in general, is to protect property and the people who hold a lot of property. As such, private prisons and private probation firms aren't in any way a contradiction in terms or a violation of the spirit of the system or anything like that — terrorizing the victims of society into submission is a grim necessity, but this doesn't mean it can't also be an opportunity for money-making.

Try not to feign shock about any of this; only the willfully ignorant or naïve believe that law enforcement is meant to protect or serve anyone but the powerful.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 11:23 AM on June 4, 2015 [5 favorites]


It really is time for a violent revolution.

Of course, that 's why we have things like NSA surveillance and terrorism acts.
posted by five fresh fish at 1:40 PM on June 4, 2015


I would not trust any organization in America that espouses violent revolution to either run a revolution or pick up the pieces after.

Typically I try to leave the room when the old revolution-vs-reformism argument starts up; even if it were a meaningful distinction, it wouldn't apply at this historical juncture because of how power in America tends to view even mild-mannered reformists as if they're bomb-throwing revolutionaries.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 2:01 PM on June 4, 2015 [8 favorites]


As we've been seeing in Ferguson et al, organization is not needed. All that is required is the straw that breaks society's back. I think it's getting awful damn close to that point on a nation-wide scale.
posted by five fresh fish at 2:25 PM on June 4, 2015


This makes sense. After all, if you can only be poor if you've always been poor. It's not possible to have been doing OK in the past and then recently fell on hard times. That never happens in America. EVER.

I got into an argument once with somebody who insisted that poor people should sell all of their possessions. At first it was "if you really need money, pawn shops are everywhere" but after a few minutes it became very openly "poor people don't deserve to possess anything".
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:02 PM on June 4, 2015 [4 favorites]


I had a day in traffic court a couple weeks ago. It was over a petty bullshit infraction that the dipshit officer escalated the fullest extent possible. There were maybe 30 or 40 other people in the courtroom that day, answering to charges as simple as speeding or no brake lights to DUI to driving on a suspended to drug possession to assault. Other people were facing jail sentences while I was splitting hairs over semantics to prove a point.

But I wore a suit. I wore my serious business job interview slash funeral suit. And I was the only person in that courtroom wearing a suit besides the people with law degrees.

My suit (and $300 shoes I found at a thrift store for $15) cost more than a tattoo sleeve or a NFL team jacket. But I'm pretty sure that the judge didn't think less of me for this extravagant costumery that I use once a year. While I wasn't in a situation where I need to plead poverty over court fees, I can tell you that the justice I faced was not blind.
posted by peeedro at 3:22 PM on June 4, 2015 [5 favorites]



I got into an argument once with somebody who insisted that poor people should sell all of their possessions.


Another problem is poor people don't tend to have possessions worth selling. Or at least that was my experience in being poor. What was I going to sell on e-bay the broken couch? My 5-year old computer that overheated if used for more than an hour? Maybe my costume jewlery from Wal-Mart?
posted by bgal81 at 3:25 PM on June 4, 2015 [5 favorites]


Most of my possessions (aside from the relatively fancy laptop I splurged on last year) have way more use value than exchange value at this point. In terms of exchange value, my nasty old couch is completely worthless, despite how replacing it with anything that can provide the same use value would be very expensive for me. I would have to be an idiot to get rid of the couch. Hell, I'd be an idiot to get rid of the laptop, too — most of my earning potential is tied up in having a reliable computer.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 3:28 PM on June 4, 2015 [5 favorites]


poor defendants are being jailed at increasingly alarming rates for failing to pay legal debts they can never hope to afford.

Pay attention, college students.
posted by Twang at 6:30 PM on June 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


Most of my possessions (aside from the relatively fancy laptop I splurged on last year) have way more use value than exchange value at this point.

This is also most likely true of the computer. Junkies won't even steal those.

My house was broken into about 3 years ago. They took 2 TVs and both our BluRay players, along with the power strips and cables, but they didn't touch my $3K work macbook, or any of the computers or computer monitors (one of which was a pretty nice 21" Toshiba).
posted by lodurr at 5:36 AM on June 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


Well, when my house was broken into last year, they took everything that was small and valuable which included an iPad and a laptop. The cop who came told us that they will generally leave bulky items and stick to cash, jewelry, guns, laptops, tablets, and smartphones. They take these things to a fence who gives them a few dollars so they can go buy some drugs. The fence then takes the items to a pawn shop or a series of pawn shops though usually not in the same area where the stuff was stolen.

So I guess just assume anything of value may be a target. The single biggest thing you can do is to upgrade the strike plates on all the exterior doors on your house along with the deadbolts. Turns out that the hardware usually installed on a door makes it pretty easy to kick in. We went kind of nuts and got this but something like this is probably good enough and a LOT cheaper.

After that, get security system sign and window stickers. You don't actually need the security system, signs that make it look like you have one will usually prompt the criminals to find a different target.

I know this is a totally derail but the break in shook me for a long while so I beat that drum every chance I get.

Um, maybe by preventing someone from breaking in you prevent them from committing a crime that would put them through this horrendous thing we call a justice system?
posted by VTX at 8:46 AM on June 5, 2015


None of those steps would have helped us, but that's another story for another time. Suffice for now to say 'broke in' is sometimes a euphemism.
posted by lodurr at 8:55 AM on June 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


Um, maybe by preventing someone from breaking in you prevent them from committing a crime that would put them through this horrendous thing we call a justice system?

I have an acquaintance who says "don't tempt your brother" when people leave bags on the seats in her car, or fail to lock their bikes well, or otherwise do things that involve leaving valuables in a place where they might get stolen. I sort of like this frame: if I get my stuff stolen I'm out a little, if someone who steals my stuff gets put in jail they're out a lot, so I should help both of us by not doing things that might tempt people into theft.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 11:53 AM on June 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


That's a tough one for me. My experience is that while almost everybody groks the idea instinctively, very few people are able to consciously parse that protecting your things does not amount to saying 'if I leave it unlocked it's yours.' On the one hand, I never leave my bike unlocked when it's off my property, and I keep it in a locked garage at night when it's on it. But taking someone else's bike is still just plain wrong, and so rarely justified that I have no qualms stating that categorically.
posted by lodurr at 12:03 PM on June 5, 2015


Just because I say 'Gear unsecured is gear gifted' doesn't mean I won't vocally remonstrate with anyone trying to take my property. I know that leaving property unattended is likely to bring theft, that doesn't mean when I protect it I'm trying to protect the thief.
posted by corb at 12:51 PM on June 5, 2015


But taking someone else's bike is still just plain wrong, and so rarely justified that I have no qualms stating that categorically.

I think it's only justifiable in action movie chase scenes, and even then return and remuneration should be expected after the villain has been stopped from doing villainous things.
posted by asperity at 12:53 PM on June 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


See, now, I was thinking about novels, which would be totally different.
posted by lodurr at 12:55 PM on June 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


There should be an epilogue to every action movie featuring the protagonist going back to make amends to all the bystanders they harmed in the pursuit of plot. They're gonna have to pick up every piece of fruit from that overturned cart, and do it with a smile.
posted by asperity at 12:58 PM on June 5, 2015 [4 favorites]


That would actually be a really fun little credit sequence montage in an action comedy like they very self-aware, self-mocking 22 Jump Street or something.
posted by VTX at 4:55 PM on June 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


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