Michigan ACLU Suing Over Debtors’ Prisons
By Cathy Reisenwitz
Editor’s note: this column was originally published on Thoughts on Liberty. With expressed permission of the author, we have republished it.
August marked the 17th anniversary of the federal government allowing states to use harsher methods of debt collection because of Clinton-era welfare reform. As a result, states are jailing people for failing to pay fines. The executives at Goldman Sachs received billions of dollars from the federal government (*cough* taxpayers) when they could not pay their debts. Yet this country wastes billions of taxpayer dollars locking up poor people who can’t pay for the privilege of being arrested, locked up, and fined for non-violent drug offenses.
All this despite the fact that debtors’ prisons are unconstitutional. As the New York Times editorial board explained:
A tenet of the American legal system is that it treats the poor and rich alike. The Supreme Court made this clear in 1970, 1971 and 1983, ruling that it is fundamentally unfair and violates equal protection under the Constitution for a judge to lock up an indigent or unemployed person because he cannot afford to pay a speeding ticket or a fine for a misdemeanor.
And yet, since the Clinton-era, states have been throwing people into prison for owing petty debts to the state in alarming numbers. RH Reality Check is reportingthat the Michigan ACLU and associates are suing over the practice.
The suit addresses the massive problem debtors’ prisons create. Their use blatantly and unconscionably exacerbates the cycle of poverty. The poor are locked up in higher numbers than the better off, and their arrests and time in jail make it much harder for them to get and keep jobs. In many cases, people are locked up for fees incurred years earlier, before they got clean and started their jobs, so the state throws them right back into unemployment. That’s what happened to Jack Dawley, who racked up $1,500 in legal fines in the 1990s when he was abusing drugs and alcohol. Since then he got clean and sober, and yet he spent 16 days in jail for failing to pay twenty-year-old fines.
And it’s been a problem for years. In 2010 the ACLU conducted a wide-rangingreport, finding that the use of “modern-day debtors’ prisons impose devastating human costs, waste taxpayer money and resources, undermine our criminal justice system, are racially skewed, and create a two-tiered system of justice.”
The report tells Sean Matthews’ story. Matthews is a homeless temporary construction worker who was arrested on marijuana possession and charged $350 in fees and $148 in court costs for the service of being caught up in America’s racist and asinine war on (poor, Black) cannabis users.
Matthews couldn’t pay the fines, because he’s homeless and you usually lose your job after you get arrested. So two years later they arrested him again for failure to pay the fines. He spent five months in jail before a judge waived his fines and released him.
Lest you think this terrible practice is an exception to corporatism, know that states are increasingly using for-profit companies to collect court fees, which then pile their own fees on top.
Imprisoning people for fines is not acceptable. Besides violating the Constitution, it’s incredibly unfair and wasteful. If rich debtors can get bailouts, the least we could do is not further victimize the poor ones with prison sentences. In addition, the practice is incredibly cost-ineffective for states. It costs more to imprison people than their fines bring in. Lastly, currently states are arresting, fining and imprisoning poor people for non-violent drug crimes. It’s a practice everyone along the political spectrum should have no problem condemning.
Cathy Reisenwitz is a D.C.-based writer and political commentator. She runs Sex and the State and writes regularly for Doublethink magazine as well as Thoughts on Liberty.