Debtors' prison— again

St. Petersburg Times | April 14, 2009

In a little-noticed trend blamed on the state's hard economic times, several courts in Florida have resurrected the de facto debtor's prison — having thousands of Floridians jailed for failing to pay assessed court fees and fines. The shortsighted plan threatens to run afoul of the U.S. Constitution. It appears to generate little additional revenue relative to the misery it causes, and it should be stopped.

A recent report by the nonprofit Brennan Center at New York University School of Law highlights the difficulty of trying to get what one researcher called "blood from stone." In Leon County's Collection Court, defendants who fail to pay their court-ordered costs and fines — often hundreds of dollars — are notified to appear at Collections Court and later arrested if they don't show. In the 12 months studied, there were 838 arrests for not appearing in court or failing to pay what was owed. Most people spent hours in jail, but some were held for a week or more.

At $53 per day of incarceration, it is an expensive way to try to collect from people who generally are struggling to meet the expenses of daily living. The center calculated that those incarcerated cost the system $62,085 to bring in $80,450 in debts.

Jail time for being broke is no way to help people get back on their feet after a run-in with the legal system. Judges should be exercising the option in state law that allows them to convert court-ordered obligations into community service. But with the Florida Legislature looking for revenue to fund the courts and other state services, judges are under pressure to wring every available penny out of those who owe. 

The nonpayment problem is only likely to worsen. In Tallahassee, lawmakers are debating raising court fees and fines even further to raise general revenue for the state. Meanwhile, the state's rising unemployment rate will make it tougher for Floridians with a criminal record to find a decent job. Do we really want our jails filled with people whose only "crime" is that they are poor?

About a third of Florida counties use collections courts, but even those without them jail people for their debts. In Pinellas, Hillsborough and Hernando counties, collection agencies are used to extract the overdue fines and fees. But defendants who violate their probation by failing to pay can find themselves in jail if a judge believes they have not coughed up what they can.

Author Charles Dickens familiarized his readers with England's system of squalid debtors' prisons. Dickens' father was imprisoned in Marshalsea for debts and Dickens set Little Dorrit there. But that country saw the light in the mid 19th century and outlawed jail for debtors.

In the United States, it is unconstitutional to incarcerate someone solely for failing to pay a debt. Florida officials get around this by claiming the defendants are going to jail not for their debts but for violating a court order. That is what you would call a self-serving technicality. The truth is that Florida has enthusiastically resurrected debtors' prison. How Dickensian is that?