|The New Debtors’ Prisons
The New York Times | April 5, 2009
Here is a tale that sounds like it comes right from the pages of “Little Dorrit,” Charles Dickens’s scathing indictment of Victorian England’s debtors’ prisons. Unfortunately, it is happening in 21st-century America.
Edwina Nowlin, a poor Michigan resident, was ordered to reimburse a juvenile detention center $104 a month for holding her 16-year-old son. 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.
In 1970, the Supreme Court ruled that it violates equal protection to keep inmates in prison extra time because they are too poor to pay a fine or court costs. More recently, the court ruled that a state generally cannot revoke a defendant’s probation and imprison him for failing to pay a fine if he is unable to do so.
That has not stopped the practice. In Georgia, poor people who cannot pay off fines — plus a monthly fee to the private company that collects the payments — are often sent to jail for nonpayment, according to Stephen Bright, president of the Southern Center for Human Rights. In 2006, the center sued on behalf of a woman who was locked up in Atlanta for eight months past her original sentence because she could not pay a $705 fine.
Until a few years ago, the police in Gulfport, Miss., regularly did sweeps of the city’s predominantly African-American neighborhoods, identified people with unpaid fines, and put them in jail. Defendants who could not pay were forced to remain there until they “sat off” their fines. The city ended the practice after it was sued.
Prisoners’ rights advocates worry that in these hard times, when government budgets are under pressure, courts and prisons will get even tougher about forcing indigent defendants to pay costs and fees, and will imprison more of them if they cannot come up with the money. The government should be helping people on society’s margins build productive lives. Throwing them in jail for being poor makes that much more difficult.