Court Costs and Debtors Prisons
“Debtor’s prison” is exactly what it sounds like – imprisonment based solely one’s inability to pay an outstanding debt. Debtor’s prisons in this country have been outlawed for over 200 years. England outlawed them in 1869. The idea of a being sent to prison for a debt is morally abhorrent and imprisonment. Obviously, one cannot earn wages in prison, thereby making confinement a self-perpetuating result.
In 1983, The U.S. Supreme Court declared that imprisoning a person on probation because he did not pay his court costs violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment without a finding that the failure to pay was willful. In other words, poor people or people out of work should not go to jail for a court debt.
Imprisonment for failure to pay court costs or fines must be based on a determination of willful failure to pay. “Willful” means that the person has sufficient assets and income to pay but does not. Furthermore, willfulness must be proven by the state. As in any criminal matter, the defendant may not be compelled to testify against himself.
Furthermore, imprisoning or extending the probation of a person for non-payment often exacerbates the problem. People gainfully employed may lose their jobs. Single parents face the prospect of the State placing their children in foster care or losing custody to the other parent. Plus, a fresh criminal conviction will make obtaining employment considerably more difficult.
As a byproduct of the explosion of incarceration over the last 50 years and the shrinking local budgets in the last decade, courts are effectively forcing offenders to bear the hefty weight of funding the criminal justice system. More perverse are the incentives created for private corporations that get in on the action. For-profit probation corporations are, in some cases, permitted to threaten probationers with jail for nonpayment. Sometimes, people are told to get the money from family or friends. They may resort to taking out high-interest predatory loans in order to avoid the genuine possibility of jail.
In the last few years, positive steps have been taken. A federal judge in Alabama shut down a municipal court and a private probation company for running what amounted to a “judicially sanctioned extortion racket.” Lawsuits have been filed in several states against courts and private probation corporations for racketeering. It is time that the American people stand against modern debtors prisons, regardless of the guise under which they operate.