Blog of Rights

When Being Poor Is a Crime

By Suzanne Ito, ACLU at 3:47pm

Sean Matthews is a homeless construction worker who was convicted of marijuana possession in 2007, and was assessed $498 in legal fines and costs. He was arrested two years later after being unable to pay that $498, and spent five months in jail at a cost of more than $3,000 to the City of New Orleans.

Gregory White, also a homeless man, was arrested for stealing $39 worth of food from a local grocery store. He was assessed $339 in fines and fees. Because he could not pay the $339, the City of New Orleans imprisoned Mr. White for 198 days at a cost of over $3,500 to the city.

You can see where this is going. In a time when states are laying off school teachers and firefighters, cities and counties are locking up people who can't pay legal fees, at costs that exceed the actual amount owed.

The aggressive pursuit of defendants who do not pay legal fees seems like a good idea to cash-strapped states, but when that defendant is poor, it's taxpayers who end up paying.

What ends up happening, unsurprisingly, is these people's chances of successfully re-entering society plummets, increasing the likelihood that they'll end up back in prison. And a vicious cycle is born.

New reports by the ACLU and Brennan Center for Justice released today document this resurgence of debtors' prisons, despite the fact that the Supreme Court found, in the 1980 case Bearden v. Georgia, that imprisoning someone because they are poor violates the 14th Amendment.

These debtors' prisons waste city/county resources by attempting to extract payments from defendants who often are homeless, unemployed or simply too poor to pay.

A former chief judge in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court once wondered: “[H]ow can you describe a system where the City pays $23 a day to the Sheriff to house someone in the Jail for 30 days to collect $100 as anything other than crazy?”

"Crazy" is possibly the only way to describe it.

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