Debtor prisons were outlawed in the U.S. two centuries ago, but, today, poor people are being carted off to jail in record numbers because they can’t pay their bills.
In the 21st century version of debtor prison, courts are working with the private sector to jail those who can’t pay their traffic tickets, late fees at public institutions, and fines and court costs for criminal convictions, effectively making it a crime to be poor.
Poor people can find themselves behind bars for a number of reasons. Traditionally, drivers who couldn’t afford their traffic tickets faced jail time, but now Americans can find themselves behind bars for even trivial reasons.
As states’ and local governments face mounting budget deficits, they are increasingly turning to aggressive tactics to collect money for low-level offenses like traffic tickets and unpaid library fines.
Teen driver Kevin Thompson, who works at an auto shop, lost his license and his freedom when he was jailed for five days because he couldn’t pay an $810 ticket within the 30 day time period, ACLU staff attorney Nusrat Choudhury told CBS.
“Since 2009, we have been hearing increasing reports that people are being jailed for a failure to pay fines and fees. We’ve observed that for-profit corrections companies are proliferating.”
Thirteen states rely on for-profit probation companies who use an offender-funded business model despite a 1983 Supreme Court decision that prohibits jailing people who are too poor to pay their debts.
It’s not just unpaid traffic tickets that could land someone in jail, however.
Earlier this year, seven federal Marshals armed with automatic weapons arrested a Texas man for $1,500 in student loans he borrowed 29 years ago. Paul Aker was thrown to the ground and arrested outside his home for his unpaid student loan, even though he repaid his other loans and thought he was free and clear, reports CNN.
“I was unaware of any outstanding debt. I’m still shaken. Why send seven guys with guns about a student loan?”
There are some 43 million Americans with student loans, and 11 percent of them are in default, meaning they could face a similar visit from the U.S. Marshals office.
Meanwhile, a Michigan prosecutor issued a warrant for a couple who failed to pay a $55 library fine on a Dr. Seuss book they took out in 2014. At the time, Cathy and Melvin Duren couldn’t afford to pay the fine for the children’s book, so they were turned over to the Economics Crimes Unit, which typically deals with petty theft.
A detective with the unit issued the couple a $105 fine, saying they would be criminally charged if they didn’t pay the money, which they felt was morally wrong and tantamount to harassment, reports Bakersfield Now.
“I think a lot of people have paid these fees before because of his threats. People are scared and I don’t think it’s right that he should be able to do this to anybody.”
Today’s debtor prisons jail poor people who can never hope to pay for justice and their basic human rights. These aggressive debt collection practices force the poor to go without the basic necessities of life so they can pay their fines and avoid jail.
It also creates a two-tier justice system where the poor to go jail and the rich go free despite having committed the same crime. Last year, the Justice Department published a report on Ferguson, Missouri, where racial unrest caused a series of riots, saying its courts used police officers to collect money for the city, according to CBS
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