Debtors’ prison in the United States was abolished almost 200 years ago in the 1830s. In 1983, the Supreme Court ruled that sending people to prison for failing to pay a court fee was a violation of their constitutional rights. But if that’s true, then why was 27-year-old Iraq War veteran Stephen Papa jailed by a judge for more than three weeks when he couldn’t come up with a $50 court fee?
Like too many vets, Papa was struggling after coming back from the war. He was homeless as well as jobless. Then one day in August of 2012, he made a mistake that he now says embarrasses him. He and a group of friends got plastered and climbed through a broken window into an abandoned warehouse.
Dumb idea — but that’s not even why Grand Rapids, Michigan, Judge Benjamin Logan threw the Army National Guard vet into a jail cell. Logan assessed $2,600 in fines to Papa for the night of drunken revelry. Papa had no problem with the fines — once he had the money to pay. At the time he had only recently, finally, found a job, making steel shelves. The job would have paid him 12 bucks an hour. But his first paycheck wasn’t scheduled for a week.
And that day in court, all Stephen Papa had on him was $25, earned from a friend’s grandparents for building them a shed. The problem was, Logan demanded that he pay $50 — on the spot. When Papa told him he could play $25, which was all he had in the world, the judge was unsympathetic.
“Wrong answer,” snapped Logan. “My expectation is 50 bucks and I just sent three people to jail that didn’t have it.”
Logan then lectured the Iraq vet on his “initiative,” saying that he should pick up discarded cans or “cut grass.”
“I just wanted to add, your honor, I’ve been trying —I tried really hard to get this job and I’m — I’d really like to keep it,” Papa told the judge.
But Logan was unmoved. He sent Papa to jail, in effect to debtors’ prison, for 22 days. When he got out, the job he’d worked hard to get had disappeared, filled by someone else.
Papa’s frustrating and heartbreaking case is far from unique. All over the country, courts are assessing often enormous fees against defendants for routine court costs whose funding has traditionally been a public responsibility. For those who can’t pay — debtors’ prison.
According to a report on National Public Radio, courts around the country are billing defendants for their own public defenders, for electronic monitoring bracelets, and for room and board during jail stays. In Washington State, defendants on trial are even forced to pay for their own juries.
Often those who can’t come up with the cash go to the new version of debtors’ prison, incarcerated not for the crimes they may or may not have committed, but for the crime of being poor.
“As Papa’s story makes clear, the judicial system is spending a lot of money jailing poor people for their lack of money,” said a recent American Civil Liberties Union report on debtors’ prison. “Not only is this plan doomed to cost more than it collects, but it’s just one more example of how our criminal justice system has gone out of control, needlessly throwing away lives and livelihoods and punishing the poor more harshly than the rich.”