The jailers of the 19th century — even in the pre-Civil War South — largely abandoned the practice of imprisoning people for falling into debt as counterproductive and ultimately barbaric. In the 1970s and ’80s, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that incarcerating people who can’t pay fines because of poverty violates the U.S. Constitution.
Apparently, though, some states and county jails never got the memo. Welcome to the debtors’ prisons of the 21st century.
“Edwina Nowlin, a poor Michigan resident, was ordered to reimburse a juvenile detention center $104 a month for holding her 16-year-old son,” the New York Times wrote in an editorial.
“When she explained to the court that she could not afford to pay, Ms. Nowlin was sent to prison. The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, which helped get her out last week after she spent 28 days behind bars, says it is seeing more people being sent to jail because they cannot make various court-ordered payments. That is both barbaric and unconstitutional.”
The details of Nowlin’s case are even more alarming than the Times editorial suggests. Not only was Nowlin under orders to pay a fine stemming from someone else’s actions, but she had been laid off from work and lost her home at the time she was ordered to “reimburse” the county for her son’s detention.
Despite her inability to pay, she was held in contempt of court and ordered to serve a 30-day sentence. On March 6, three days after she was incarcerated, she was released for one day to work. She also picked up her paycheck, in the amount of $178.53. This, she thought, could be used to pay the $104, and she would be released from jail.
But when she got back to the jail, the sheriff told her to sign her check over to the county — to pay $120 for her own room and board, and $22 for a drug test and booking fee.
Even more absurd, Nowlin requested but was denied a court-appointed lawyer. So because she was too poor to afford a lawyer and denied her constitutional right to have the court provide one for her, she couldn’t fight the contempt charge that stemmed from her poverty. And her contempt conviction only added to her poverty, as the fines and fees she was obligated to pay now multiplied.
“Like many people in these desperate economic times, Ms. Nowlin was laid off from work, lost her home and is destitute,” said Michael Steinberg, legal director of the Michigan ACLU. “Jailing her because of her poverty is not only unconstitutional, it’s unconscionable and a shameful waste of resources. It is not a crime to be poor in this country, and the government must stop resurrecting debtor’s prisons from the dustbin of history.”
Michigan isn’t the only place where you can be imprisoned for the crime of involuntary poverty. The same Catch-22 ensnares poor defendants daily in courtrooms across the country.
In 2006, the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) filed a suit on behalf of Ora Lee Hurley, who couldn’t get out of prison until she had enough money to pay a $705 fine. But she couldn’t pay the fine because she had to pay the Georgia Department of Corrections $600 a month for room and board, and spend $76 a month on public transportation, laundry and food.
She was released five days a week to work at the K&K Soul Food restaurant, where she earned $6.50 an hour, which netted her about $700 a month after taxes. Hurley was trapped in prison for eight months beyond her initial 120-day sentence until the Southern Center intervened. Over the course of her incarceration, she earned about $7,000, but she never had enough at one time to pay off her $705 fine.
“This is a situation where if this woman was able to write a check for the amount of the fine, she would be out of there,” Sarah Geraghty, a SCHR lawyer, told the Atlanta Journal Constitution while Hurley was still imprisoned. “And because she can’t, she’s still in custody. It’s as simple as that.”
Georgia also lets for-profit probation companies prey on people too poor to pay their traffic violations and court fees. According to a 2008 SCHR report entitled “Profiting from the poor”:
In courts around Georgia, people who are charged with misdemeanors and cannot pay their fines that day in court are placed on probation under the supervision of private, for-profit companies until they pay off their fines. On probation, they must pay these companies substantial monthly “supervision fees” that may double or triple the amount that a person of means would pay for the same offense.
For example, a person of means may pay $200 for a traffic ticket on the day of court and be done with it, while a person too poor to pay that day is placed on probation and ends up paying $500 or more for the same offense.
The privatization of misdemeanor probation has placed unprecedented law enforcement authority in the hands of for-profit companies that act essentially as collection agencies. These companies, focused on profit rather than public safety or rehabilitation, are not designed to supervise people or connect them to services and jobs. Rather, they charge exorbitant monthly fees and use the threat of imprisonment and a variety of bullying tactics to squeeze money out of the men and women under their supervision.
For too many poor people convicted of misdemeanors, our state is not living up to the constitutional promise of equal justice under law.
In Gulfport, Miss., the municipal court started a “fine collection task force” to crack down on people who owed fees for misdemeanors. According to the SCHR Web site:
The task force trolled through predominantly African American neighborhoods, rounding up people who had outstanding court fines. After arresting and jailing them, the City of Gulfport processed these people through a court proceeding at which no defense attorney was present or even offered.
Many people were jailed for months after hearings lasting just seconds. While the city collected money, it also packed the jail with hundreds of people who couldn’t pay, including people who were sick, physically disabled and/or limited by mental disabilities.
The disregard of the justice system for the rights of poor people to equal protection and due process is cause for outrage. But it shouldn’t come as a surprise in an era when the government spends billions bailing out banks while letting foreclosures and unemployment ruin the lives of working people.
We need to build a movement, like the working-class struggles of the 1930s, that can demand an end to the inhuman practice of incarcerating people for no other crime than finding themselves at the bottom of the social ladder.