The Return of Debtors Prisons (After All, Prison Labor is Cheap Labor for Transnational Corporations and Private Prisons Get Paid More If There are More Inmates)
November 25, 2011
As if life wasn't already tense enough for Americans who can't pay their debts, collection agencies are now taking advantage of archaic state laws to have some debtors arrested and sent to jail.
More than one-third of US states allow debtors to be arrested and jailed, says Jessica Silver-Greenberg in the Wall Street Journal.
Judges typically grant arrest warrants when the debtors have failed to show up for court dates or failed to make court-ordered payments.
Of course, the reason debtors have failed to make court-ordered payments is often the same reason they didn't pay their debts in the first place: They don't have any money.
In September, a 53 year-old woman named Vivian Joy was stopped for a broken tail-light in Champaign, Illinois. And then, because the cops discovered that she still hadn't paid $2,200 to a collection agency, she was cuffed and carted off to jail.
She doesn't have any money.
Jailing debtors for not paying their debts is apparently especially popular in Illinois.Not really, but reports indicate more Americans are being threatened with jail -- or jailed -- for failing to pay their bills.
March 22, 2011
The United States does not have debtors prisons, per se -- they effectively were outlawed in 1833 -- but you can still go to jail for failure to pay your debts.
Surprised? You wouldn't be if you thought about it for a bit. Judges occasionally jail a parent who fails to pay court-ordered child support, but only after going to considerable effort to extract the money in other ways, and usually only if the courts believe the parent can afford to pay.
And there are still "pay the fine or …" judgments, although community service in lieu of slammer time is the preferred option these civilized days.Popping up more often, however, are cases where people go to jail for failure to pay their personal debts to businesses.
According to The Wall Street Journal, more than a third of all U.S. states allow jailing of debtors who can't or won't pay. Its survey of nine counties with a total population of 13.6 million showed that judges have signed off on more than 5,000 such warrants since the start of 2010.
Jack Hinton of Kenney, Ill., was sentenced to jail indefinitely after falling behind on a court order that he pay $150 a month on a debt of $6,440. Hinton, a self-employed roofing contractor, said he had broken his neck and back in a fall, but the judge noted that Hinton used $1,000 for other bills rather than his court-ordered payments. He was ordered to the county jail until he could come up with $300.
After three hours in a holding cell, his wife got him released by borrowing on a credit card. "I couldn't pay, and I was stuck in jail until I did," Hinton said. "How is that any different from debtors prison?"
The WSJ reported on a couple of recent jailings:
- Easy Money Express, a Paducah, Ky., payday lender, won arrest warrants against at least four customers, one of whom spent five days jail after failing to pay a $275 debt.
- Emmie Nichols, 26, was arrested at her mother's house in Platt County, Ill., after lawyers for Capital One Financial won an arrest warrant against her for skipping a court hearing about $1,159.87 she owed on a credit card. The $500 bond that freed Nichols from the county jail was turned over to Capital One as a partial payment of the debt.
Most of these legal actions are filed by payday lenders or collection companies that are sold the debt for pennies on the dollar by the stiffed businesses, which seldom find bill collection to be cost-effective. Bigger companies build credit losses into the price of their product and have accounts-receivable insurance and tax write-offs to ease their pain.
"We have created a de facto debtors prison system in the United States that is largely unconstitutional," Judith Fox, a law professor at Notre Dame Law School, told the Star Tribune. "In some parts of the country, people are so fearful of arrest they are scrambling to pay money they might not even owe."
Of course, the fear factor is what makes the collection system work. That, and the relentless pursuit.
Debt collectors defend the practice, saying phone calls, letters and legal actions aren't always enough to get people to pay.
"Admittedly, it's a harsh sanction," said Steven Rosso, a partner in the Como Law Firm of St. Paul, which does collections work. "But sometimes, it's the only sanction we have."
Is it legal? Experts disagree, the Star Tribune found.
In states such as Indiana and Illinois, people are being locked up for not making court-ordered payments. Known as "pay or stay," it can mean days in jail and multiple arrests for the same debt. Some legal experts say the practice is unconstitutional because the arrest is directly linked to the failure to pay a debt.
In other states, the issue is less clear because warrants to arrest debtors are issued for disobeying court orders, such as not filling out a financial disclosure form or missing a required hearing, not for failure to pay debt. So long as someone fulfills the court order, they can avoid incarceration.
"It looks on the surface like debtors prison," said William Ross, a law professor at Samford University's Cumberland School of Law in Birmingham, Ala. "But it's really not, because the person isn't being punished for the debt, but for failing to appear."
Alan White, a law professor at Valparaiso University in Indiana, told the newspaper that even the threat of jail for debts is unconstitutional. He also questioned the practice of bail being set at the amount of the debt.
"If, in effect, people are being incarcerated until they pay bail, and bail is being used to pay their debts, then they're being incarcerated to pay their debts," he said.
And then there is the opinion of Illinois Circuit Court Judge Chris Freese. "I wish I could do it more," Freese, who has heard hundreds of debt-collection cases, told the WSJ. "It's often the only remedy to get people into court and paying their debts."
How often are debtors arrested across the country? No national statistics are kept, and until recently the practice has gone largely unnoticed outside legal circles.
"My suspicion is the debt collection industry does not want the world to know these arrests are happening," Robert Hobbs of the National Consumer Law Center in Boston told the Star Tribune, "because the practice would be widely condemned."
Would it? Public support/disapproval, as with its attitude toward the welfare system, likely depends on the details of each individual case. Some people have received a raw deal in life, and others just want things without paying for them.
December 18, 2009
Local government is desperate for new funding but doesn't dare tap the wealthy. So they're busily criminalizing poverty and filling new Debtor's prisons.
Correspondent Jeff Ray sent in this story Milking the Poor: One Family's Fall Into Homelessness (The Atlantic) which is representative of the trend in local government to criminalize poverty for its own enrichment.
Here's the deal. Local government has grown fat in a decade of gargantuan capital gains and real rising real estate taxes. Employees pulling down over $100,000 each are legion, as are public retirees pulling down over $100,000 a year in pension payments. Local government has added 15% more employees even as population grew by a meager 3%. (The numbers may vary in your area but the percentages won't.)
Now the seven fat years are over and local government is not liking the seven lean years. Now that housing has plummeted, so have the tax rolls; capital gains have dried up and even sales tax revenues are crashing. Despite the usual bleatings of hope, the chances of tax revenues recovering are slightly lower than the proverbial snowball's chance of remaining frozen in Heck.
'Foreclosures: 'Worst three months of all time'
Despite signs of broader economic recovery, number of foreclosure filings hit a record high in the third quarter - a sign the plague is still spreading.
Meanwhile, a perfect storm is gutting public pension funds.
More Pain for State's Taxpayers, Cities: CALPERS losses $50B.
In order for the State amd local governments of California to meet their future pension obligations (paid by CALPERS, the massive public pension fund), they need to kick in hundreds of millions of dollars more in coming years, even as their revenues are falling.
The conclusion that the medical and pension benefits which were promised in the fat years are no longer payable is anathema to public unions and managerial staff alike, and so the machinery of local government has geared up to stripmine the citizens like a giant trawler stripmines the sea: parking tickets have been jacked up to $60 or more, traffic violations are in the hundreds of dollars, speed traps abound, and as noted in the top story, fees for "crimes" like driving without auto insurance now cost more than the insurance itself.
And gosh forbid if you don't pay on time--the penalties double the original fine and then go up from there.
Is there anything more pernicious, malicious and immoral that this criminalization of poverty to engorge the coffers of local government? If John Q. Citizen defaults on his credit card, he might have to endure harrassing phone calls from bill collectors. But worst case, he can unplug his phone or cancel that number and get another phone number. Fortunately, the bank cannot have him imprisoned (yet).
But local government isn't quite as kind and gentle as the bankers. Mess with their revenues (i.e. don't pay the hefty fines they levy) and they'll haul your carcass into court and then into jail (can't make bail? Too bad. You're a full-blown criminal now.)
Exactly what is the difference between racking up $1,000 in fines off an innocuous violation and being imprisoned for lack of payment and a 19th century-era Debtors prison?
Isn't this part of the reason why the Parisian mobs tore down the Bastille?
Does this make any sense at all, arresting people who can't pay their nonsensically stupendous fines and penalties just so government employees don't have to take a cut in pay and benefits? When did a ticket go from $50 to $300 and up? And why? Does anyone think the cost leaped up "for the public good"?
Is getting nailed for a ticket you can't pay really a deterrent to being too poor to keep your auto insurance current?
Let's follow this all the way to the end. Now that John Q. Citizen is in jail because he was nabbed driving without insurance and a big fat fine is outstanding, aren't the taxpayers throwing away $50,000 to $100,000 a year to process his tortured journey through the Kafkaesque court and jail system with those other "dangerous criminals"?
Hey, the war-on-drugs/prison/gulag pays very well, thank you, and filling cells with Mr. Citizen is just grist for the mill.
Now when Mr. Citizen is released (darn it, we can't get blood from a turnip!), his car has been impounded and he owes the towing yard $1,000 which he doesn't have. So he no longer has a car to get to work, or even drive to an interview.
OK, so maybe he was irresponsible in not setting aside enough money for the car insurance. Is that now a criminal offense? Is this the best use of police officers, judges, jails and the "justice" system? Is anyone being deterred by the ruthless criminalization of poverty? Please make the case for that, local politicos and bureaucrats.
Great work, local government. You've not only stolen the citizen's last few dollars, you've also deprived him of his employment opportunities and livelihood.
Here's a thought: you need more tax revenue? Then make the case to the citizens at the ballot box to pay more. Prove you're not squandering the tax money you're already getting by the boatload. Show us how you're going to spend our money as carefully as we do.
If you really want to stripmine somebody's cash assets, why not start with your local Wal-Mart? I can guarantee you they won't leave town when you enact a new ordinance taxing all retail establishments of 50,000 square feet or more.
Or impose a tax on all homes worth more than triple the median price in your zip code. You want to nail somebody with higher taxes? Then go after the top 5% who still have assets. Don't trawl the streets for the folks who can least afford your rapacious imposition of authority.
Bankers aren't the only rapacious greedheads in this nation. Look no farther than city hall, the county building and the State capitol. Just hope it isn't you who runs low on cash and gets nailed with that $395 ticket which soon morphs into $695 and an arrest warrant.
You can't blame local government avarice on Washington or the bankers. All this greed is homegrown, local and entirely unnecessary. As it stands now, 10% or maybe even 20% of the citizenry will soon have outstanding arrest warrants for what amounts to local government Debtors Prison.
Come November 2010, we can only pray that the citizenry "takes care of business" at the ballot box, and all the incumbent politicos who approved this evil criminalization of poverty get tossed out en masse, regardless of party affiliation.
“The industry itself is tremendous. Can you imagine what it takes to run, say, California State Prisons in terms of food services, clothing, armaments, initially the building trades? It's a multi-billion dollar industry that a great number of people are getting fat off of so it's so disingenuous for them to say they're losing money because people aren't paying their fees,” Ms. (Geri) Silva added.
The Real Cost of Prisons Weblog
October 20, 2010
Poor men and women exit America's prisons and jails, believing that they have paid their debts to society, but a new prison study by the ACLU revealed that many are being locked up or threatened because they cannot afford to pay their legal fines.
After a year long investigation into the assessment and collection of fees associated with criminal sentences in Louisiana, Michigan, Ohio, Georgia, and Washington, the ACLU reported in “In for a Penny: The Rise of America's New Debtors' Prisons,” that courts across the U.S. were profiting from debtors' prisons by violating a Supreme Court decision ordering courts to investigate a person's inability to pay before returning them to prison.
“In some cases the courts are making decisions to incarcerate someone and the courts are not bearing the costs of having to incarcerate them, so they can make decisions based upon what they feel is appropriate in the circumstances of a defendant without having to bear the consequences of that decision,” said Eric Balaban, Senior Staff Counsel for the National Prison Project of the ACLU.
In New Orleans, for example, the court's aggressiveness to collect fees stems from the important part those fees play in their operational budget but the money to pay Sheriffs to house men and women who cannot pay those debts are borne by the city, not the courts, he said. One Ohio town with a population of 60 collected more than $400,000 in one year of fees or officially, legal financial obligations, from the mayor's court.
Two of the cases uncovered by the ACLU's investigation were:
- A homeless construction worker in Louisiana named Sean Matthews was convicted of marijuana in 2007 and assessed $498 in fines and costs. After being arrested two years later for failure to pay the fines, he was sent to jail for five months, but it cost the City of New Orleans more than $3,000.
- Kawana Young, a single mother of two in Michigan, was arrested in March and spent three days in jail for failing to pay $300 in fees surrounding minor traffic offenses. Recently laid off and unable to find work, she incurred booking fees for her daily room and board.
According to Balaban, there are certain fines that undoubtedly disproportionately affect people of color.
“African Americans make up 12 percent of the population. As of 2007 they made up approximately 38 percent of the incarcerated population and there are specific fines and fees that only people who are in prison and jail have to pay,” he said.
Those fees include fees for the booking and intake process, and so-called pay-to-stay fees for each day entities house an inmate.
“Given that African Americans and people of color are disproportionately represented in our nations' prisons and jails, those particular fines and fees disproportionately affect them,” Atty. Balaban said.
Although the ACLU sought statistics that indicated by race the number of men, women, and children who were incarcerated due to unpaid legal debts, none of the jurisdictions could provide the information, saying they did not keep those figures, especially by race, except Washington State, he said.
Washington State looked at the issue after the Washington State Supreme Court commissioned a study looking at racial disparities in the imposition of fines and fees for people who had been convicted of felonies. He said it found that Hispanics were likely to receive much higher fees than their White counterparts. People convicted of drug offenses were likely to receive higher fees than people convicted of violent offenses, and people of color were more likely to be searched, charged, arrested, criminally prosecuted, and convicted of drug offenses in Washington State and throughout the country than people who are White.
“But certainly, the courts have found this and it's not surprising to say that racial disparities exist at every stage of the criminal justice process, not just in our prisons and jails,” said Atty. Balaban.
Atty. Balaban told The Final Call that the ACLU first learned of the problem in 2009 through Edwina Nowlin, who contacted them after she was jailed in Michigan for not paying court-ordered monthly lodging fees charged by the detention facility that was holding her juvenile son. She was homeless and working part-time at the time she was ordered to make the payments, Atty. Balaban said.
The ACLU in Michigan filed an emergency motion on her behalf and she was eventually released. After her release, the organization's National Prison Project and Racial Justice Program conducted a survey to find out just how widespread her experience was.
Their survey focused on geographically diverse states, states that had larger urban populations than others where the problem seemed to be confined to more rural areas, and states where the problems they had heard about was emblematic of the problems across the country.
“We haven't heard from Congress or received any feed back as of yet but we're very hopeful that Congress will hold oversight hearings on this,” Atty. Balaban said.The ACLU has made specific recommendations to state and local officials to ensure that: defendants are not incarcerated because they cannot pay fines and fees that they can't afford and that courts consider their ability to pay when deciding whether to assess more fees.
The study further recommended that states should repeal all laws that may result in poor defendants being punished more severely than defendants charged with the same offenses who have means.
Geri Silva, executive director of Families to Amend California's Three Strikes Law, said the back story is that constitutionally, everybody is guaranteed a right to counsel, whether they can pay or not, so it is clear from the beginning that people are not going to be able to pay.
She said the irony is that states are jailing people in “cash-strapped” cities for failing to pay their legal fines, but turn around and pay triple or quadruple that amount to put people in jail.
“It sort of leads one to believe that perhaps jails and prisons are money making enterprises for the states. All roads lead to prison and all thinking leads to the fact that if they're filling these prisons, it's not about public safety obviously but it has to have something to do with financial gain for the industry itself,” Ms. Silva said.
She reiterated “In For a Penny's” position that men and women who are re-entering into society from prison already face tough obstacles. They have to try to rebuild their lives with reduced or no incomes, worsening credit ratings, poor housing prospects, and greater chances of recidivism.
“How far will they go? Who are they trying to kid with this? How do you get blood out of a turnip? How does somebody who can't pay, pay? Will they then find the one person who had their nails done or something instead of paying? Is that what they're going to do to justify this insanity,” Ms. Silva asked.
According to Ms. Silva, all of these issues that hang over a poor person who has been incarcerated stems from America's building an industry that is skewed, sinister, uncivilized, and centered on punishment. Ask taxpayers if they would rather pay $600 in legal fees or thousands in jail costs and they would pick the more sensible route of less costs, she said.
“The industry itself is tremendous. Can you imagine what it takes to run, say, California State Prisons in terms of food services, clothing, armaments, initially the building trades? It's a multi-billion dollar industry that a great number of people are getting fat off of so it's so disingenuous for them to say they're losing money because people aren't paying their fees,” Ms. Silva added.
Critical Resistance is a prison advocacy group based in Oakland, California that works with people who are incarcerated and re-entering society. Isaac Ontiveros, communications director, said that the ACLU's report unveiled yet another example of the way that the Prison Industrial Complex works to imprison and police people, and how it creates, exacerbates, and thrives on debt and creating debt traps.
People spend a number of years in prisons or jails and the first thing they come out to is an enormous pile of debt, and that affects their inability to gain access to resources around re-entry support, Mr. Ontiveros told The Final Call.
“We're talking basic things like transportation vouchers, housing, job opportunities, they end up being left with a pile of debt and we see how that debt just lands them back in a cage ... The thing to look at is who's being policed, imprisoned, thrown in jail around these tiny infractions and if we look at what communities people are coming out of I don't have to guess that it is poor people, people of color, and that the state, local government puts a premium on policing people of color,” he added.
He said the whole idea is around social control and who is desirable and who is not. One solution is to prioritize resources to create programs that build up communities. The pressure for those resources will come from the ground, grassroots mobilizing, not from politicians on local, state, or national levels.
“It's going to come from people from the community, organizing their community, and either building these things themselves, or putting pressure on politicians to make a demand for resources to be used for things that have shown time and time again to build up communities,” he added.
According to Kurt Kaaekuahiwi, an intern with Critical Resistance, the definite intent of debtors' prisons is to keep people within the system, but resources should be put into educational or job training programs within prisons to help those men and women re-entering secure jobs once they are released.
“We have to divest from policing, divest from incarceration, and divest from prison expansion. Obviously, these monies that are being appropriated are through the general fund, which is from our tax dollars, and being used to further criminalize, stigmatize, and keep us trapped in the system, but that money is not used to support our needs of affordable housing or job opportunities,” he said.
(Read the full report: “In for a Penny: The Rise of America's New Debtors' Prisons)
Human Exposure Blog
October 22, 2010
Picture an inmate at the end of his sentence. The barred gates of the jail open up, and he steps out into the fresh air of freedom. Let’s assume this is an inmate who has been wholeheartedly reformed, kicked his bad habits, and has a determined attitude about rebuilding his life.
Then the bill comes. Not the rent or the bill for utilities, but a bill for the legal fees incurred, plus fines. Suddenly, that inmate ends up back in prison through no fault of his own except for lack of resources.
This is the picture presented by Charlene Muhammad of the New America Media as she examines the new findings presented by the ACLU:
After a year long investigation into the assessment and collection of fees associated with criminal sentences in Louisiana, Michigan, Ohio, Georgia, and Washington, the ACLU reported in ‘In for a Penny: The Rise of America’s New Debtors’ Prisons,’ that courts across the U.S. were profiting from debtors’ prisons by violating a Supreme Court decision ordering courts to investigate a person’s inability to pay before returning them to prison.
Since the poor and the minorities are disproportionately represented in the average jail population, this raises a number of disturbing issues. Since Muhammad’s article is quite long (and is highly recommended, by the way), we’re going to focus on one of the people she has interviewed, Geri Silva.
Silva is the director of Families to Amend California’s Three Strikes Law, and she raises many valid points. For on thing, in a country where right to counsel is axiomatic, the idea of making everyone pay the fees and fines irrespective of their financial means is ridiculous. That right to counsel exists to protect those who have no means:
[Silva] said the irony is that states are jailing people in ‘cash-strapped’ cities for failing to pay their legal fines, but turn around and pay triple or quadruple that amount to put people in jail.
‘It sort of leads one to believe that perhaps jails and prisons are money making enterprises for the states. All roads lead to prison and all thinking leads to the fact that if they’re filling these prisons, it’s not about public safety obviously but it has to have something to do with financial gain for the industry itself,’ Ms. Silva said.
[Silva] reiterated ‘In For a Penny’s’ position that men and women who are re-entering into society from prison already face tough obstacles. They have to try to rebuild their lives with reduced or no incomes, worsening credit ratings, poor housing prospects, and greater chances of recidivism.
Think back to the hypothetical inmate: Will he make it out of the jail with that same attitude after this, or will it kill the idea that he can be a productive member of society? After all, he’d played by the rules, and through no fault of his own ended up in prison again. How would you feel?
‘How far will they go? Who are they trying to kid with this? How do you get blood out of a turnip? How does somebody who can’t pay, pay? Will they then find the one person who had their nails done or something instead of paying? Is that what they’re going to do to justify this insanity,’ Ms. Silva asked.
According to Ms. Silva, all of these issues that hang over a poor person who has been incarcerated stems from America’s building an industry that is skewed, sinister, uncivilized, and centered on punishment. Ask taxpayers if they would rather pay $600 in legal fees or thousands in jail costs and they would pick the more sensible route of less costs, she said.
Which brings us back to one of our recurring themes: It’s More Expensive to Do Nothing. Once more, the imbalance between taxpayer expenditure for jail costs is staggering compared to the cost of defraying these fees. As taxpayers, we would love to know that our taxes are not only being deployed to an effective program, but also that they are being reduced due to that program’s efficacy. It is, as they say, a no-brainer.
Consider the massive amount of cash it takes to run a jail or prison. Think about the cost of everything, from guards to food to laundry, but also about the number of staff needed to ensure a smooth operation of the facility.
Let’s close with one more remark from Silva:
‘The industry itself is tremendous. Can you imagine what it takes to run, say, California State Prisons in terms of food services, clothing, armaments, initially the building trades? It’s a multi-billion dollar industry that a great number of people are getting fat off of so it’s so disingenuous for them to say they’re losing money because people aren’t paying their fees,’ Ms. Silva added.
Should we be paying for this, or should we demand fiscal responsibility and a new approach?