A new report shows that a combination of coercion and systematic injustice is bringing the functional equivalent of debtor’s prisons back in America. Alex Tabarrok highlights the document, from a non-profit called Arch City Defenders. The report touches on many American cities, but Tabarrok zeros in on the parts about the now-infamous Ferguson, Missouri. Even though Ferguson had roughly normal violent crime rates, on average every household in the town had $321 in fines and 3 warrants imposed on it for failure to pay court fees. Tabarrok quotes from the report to describe one way this can happen:
For a simple speeding ticket, an attorney is paid $50-$100, the municipality is paid $150-$200 in fines and court costs, and the defendant avoids points on his or her license as well as a possible increase in insurance costs. For simple cases, neither the attorney nor the defendant must appear in court.
However, if you do not have the ability to hire an attorney or pay fines, you do not get the benefit of the amendment, you are assessed points, your license risks suspension and you still owe the municipality money you cannot afford…. If you cannot pay the amount in full, you must appear in court on that night to explain why. If you miss court, a warrant will likely be issued for your arrest.
As Tabarrok points out, if you are jailed for a speeding ticket or failing to sign up for a city trash service, you will then likely lose your job and maybe even your housing. And non-payment is almost guaranteed for many of the people hauled into the court. The report points out that fines can be as much as three times poor defendants’ monthly incomes. Thus debtor’s prisons slip back in another form, fueling cycles of poverty and dysfunction in the bargain. Especially egregious are the things that make it even harder for defendants to pay: such as having courts closed to children, putting them at risk of getting in trouble for leaving their kids outside.
We’ve discussed the troubling rebirth of debtor’s prisons before. This a serious problem in need of deep reform. The sooner, the better.