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Debtor's Prisons Make a Comeback


It’s like a Dickens novel come to life. The Economist has an eye-opening write up on the rise of “debtor’s prisons” in the American criminal justice system. Here’s how it works in a nutshell: people who can’t afford to pay fines for things like expired license tags and speeding tickets are put on probation under the supervision of private firms whose income comes from adding additional monthly fees to the balance the accused already owes. Those who continue to be delinquent are then sometimes thrown into prison, until a family member or friend can pay them out. More:

All this occurs routinely, though the Supreme Court ruled in 1983 that before a court jails someone for failing to pay a fine or fee, it must first ensure that his failure to pay was wilful—that he could have paid but chose not to. Jailing someone because he cannot pay violates the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. Similarly, 13 of the 15 states studied by the Brennan Centre charge defendants public-defender fees ($50 for a misdemeanour and $100 for a felony defence in Florida; in Virginia, as much as $1,235 for some felonies), even though the Supreme Court ruled in 1963 that the Sixth Amendment required courts to provide lawyers at no charge for indigent defendants.

Along with the abuse of civil forfeiture, in which police departments confiscate the property of innocent parties pulled over on highways, the abuse of probation fees and fines is an unjust practice that often hurts those who are least able to fight back against it. This is clearly an abuse of the justice system that, like the prison system more generally, is in desperate need of reform. Read the whole thing.

[Image of St Briavels Castle Debtors Prison from Wikimedia Commons]

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