The abandonment of justice in America: Debtors' prisons on the rise across the country

Sunday, January 05, 2014 by: J. D. Heyes
Tags: debtors prisons, injustice, government bureaucracy

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(NaturalNews) Dating back to the ancient Mediterranean societies and Greek city-states, circa 600 B.C., and stretching into Europe in the late 18th century, debtor's prisons - lock-ups for people who were unable to pay their debts, due to unforeseen reasons, are making a comeback in 21st century America.

As reported by Fox News and others recently, folks who are struggling to pay overdue fines and fees that are associated with court costs - even for simple traffic infractions - are increasingly landing in jail:

Critics are calling the practice the new "debtors' prison" -- referring to the jails that flourished in the U.S. and Western Europe over 150 years ago. Before the time of bankruptcy laws and social safety nets, poor folks and ruined business owners were locked up until their debts were paid off.

Reforms eventually outlawed the practice. But groups like the Brennan Center for Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union say it's been reborn in local courts which may not be aware it's against the law to send indigent people to jail over unpaid fines and fees -- or they just haven't been called on it until now.

'It's a waste of taxpayer resources'

And now, advocates are pressuring courts to reverse the trend because - aside from unanswered legal questions - such jurisdictions are disproportionately sending poor people to jail, who then cost governments more money in incarceration costs.

"It's a waste of taxpayer resources, and it undermines the integrity of the justice system," Carl Takei, staff attorney for the ACLU's National Prison Project, told

"The problem is it's not actually much of a money-making proposition ... to throw people in jail for fines and fees when they can't afford it. If counties weren't spending the money jailing people for not paying debts, they could be spending the money in other ways," Takei said.

In a recent report titled "Criminal Justice Debt: A Tool Kit for Action," the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's School of Law broke down the cost to governments and municipalities of jailing debtors, compared to the amount of old debt that they were once collecting (however slowly). Jail is not the better option.

"For example, according to the report, Mecklenburg County, N.C., collected $33,476 in debts in 2009 but spent $40,000 jailing 246 debtors -- a loss of $6,524," reported.

As bloated governments flounder, they seek to punish those who don't pay

Many of the fees that are going uncollected stem from local governments' bids to close yawning budget gaps and yearly revenue shortfalls. Many of the new levies and fees can be quite difficult to handle for those passing through the system; 80 percent qualify as indigent - too impoverished to pay - the Brennan Center found.

In the state of Florida, for instance, 20 new fees have been added since 1996, the center found; North Carolina, meanwhile, imposed debtor late fees as well as additional charges on payment plans.

So, as governments have become overly bureaucratic and bloated, they must impose new fees to keep pace with their growth; debtor's prison, then, has become an enforcement mechanism, albeit one that runs afoul of common sense and, in most cases, profitability.

Further, as reports, the fees - and the actions surrounding collection of said fees - have become as punitive as they are capricious:

More and more, courts are dragging people in for fines and fees that have ballooned due to interest imposed on the initial sums. Some owe money to the public defender's office for the representation they received during their time in court. Others incur hundreds of dollars in fees while they're incarcerated -- for everything from toilet paper to the beds inmates sleep on.

"Even though a lot of jurisdictions do have statutes on the books that allow judges to waive fines and fees, it doesn't always happen," Lauren Brooke-Eisen, counsel for the Brennan Center's Justice Program, said.


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