Courts Should Stop Jailing People for Being Poor

Across the country, cash-strapped cities and counties are throwing poor defendants in jail for failing to pay legal debts that they can never hope to manage. On Monday, the New York Times told the story of Gina Ray, whose $179 speeding ticket mushroomed into $3,170 in fines and fees and 40 days in jail when she couldn’t afford to pay it. Gina is one of many swept up in America’s new debtors’ prisons, a growing problem nationwide. 

Also this week, the ABA Journal  told the story of the Philadelphia courts’ aggressive efforts to collect unpaid fines and fees, many of which are decades old. Ameen Muqtadir was billed nearly $41,000 for two failures to appear in court dating back to 1991 and 1997—even though he’d been incarcerated at the time of each hearing. Meanwhile, Hakim Waliyyudin spent 12 days in jail while he raised the money to post a $1,000 bond with the court; after the criminal charges against him were dismissed, the court clerk told him that he owed another $9,000 plus $1,500 in collection fees because of a missed court date.   Although a free attorney from Community Legal Services ultimately convinced the court to waive the judgment and collection charges against Hakim, many other indigent defendants around the country face further jail time when they cannot pay court-ordered fines and fees. 

As the ACLU emphasized in its October 2010 report, In for a Penny: The Rise of America’s New Debtors’ Prisons, jailing people for unpaid court debts imposes devastating human costs on men and women whose only remaining crime is that they are poor. Upon release, they face the daunting prospect of having to rebuild their lives yet again, while their substantial legal debts pose a significant, and at times insurmountable, barrier as they attempt to re-enter society. They see their incomes fall, their credit ratings worsen, their prospects for housing and employment dim, and their chances of ending up back in jail or prison increase. Many must make hard choices each month as they attempt to balance their needs and those of their families with their legal financial obligations. They also remain tethered to the criminal justice system—sometimes decades after they complete their sentences—and live under constant threat of being sent back to jail or prison, solely because they cannot pay what has become an unmanageable legal debt.

Aggressive collection of legal financial obligations creates a two-tiered system of justice in which the poorest defendants are punished more harshly than those with means. Although courts attempt to collect legal financial obligations from indigent and affluent defendants alike, those who can afford to pay their legal debts avoid jail, complete their sentences, and move on with their lives. Those unable to pay end up incarcerated or under continued court supervision. Perversely, they also often end up paying much more in fines and fees than defendants who can pay their legal financial obligations. Additionally, the imposition of legal financial obligations disproportionately affects racial and ethnic minorities, who are disproportionately represented among the prisoner population

Courts have found that incarcerating people for debts they couldn’t afford to pay violates the 14th Amendment. Further, it creates hardships for men and women who already struggle with re-entering society after being released from prison or jail, and wastes resources in an often fruitless effort to extract payments. In an age when more Americans are deprived of their liberty than ever before, unnecessarily and unfairly, we should be shutting down debtors’ prisons, not creating more of them.

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Anonymous

I need help. I have government agency doing everything they by lying and threating people to lie on me. I need your help. My name is Lee Spivey. I talked to the Aclu Houston, Texas. A Ms. Dotty. Please help me to stop comunication violations. Thank You Lee

LEE SPIVEY

PLEASE HELP ME. I cant file a complaint because they are blocking postal services.

MichaelBradford

I am going through this same problem in Washington state. I receive social security and my mother had to spend $500 to get out of jail or serve two months of a six month sentence. I have to file motions with the court to try and waive the LFO's since there is a federal law that prevents the state court from ordering payments from social security. I also filed a tort claim against the state for incarcerating me over this and then taking it to U.S. District Court if the tort fails. I don't understand why the federal government continues tolet states do this when it isn't legal.

Danny Roman

Theirs a lot to read here but little u can do seems like the scales of justice are tilted in the wrong direction. We r still getting locked up for nothing and not being heard.

Anonymous

In 2003, I received a speeding ticket for allegedly driving 7 miles over the speed limit or "driving while black." At the time I was in college living on a shoe-string budget, and was unable to pay the ticket, so my driver's license was suspended for non-payment of a traffic ticket. I attempted to make payment arrangements with the court, but I was held in contempt for not making timely payments. I take full responsibility for my inaction. By the summer of 2003, my fines, court costs and reinstatement fee snowballed to a whopping $2,000. I nearly had to drop out of college and quit my job to manage the court debt and the suspended driver's license (I could not drive to work or school with the suspended license.) I served no jail time, but paid $300 dollars in fines to the court, plus the cost of the speeding ticket.

Fast forward 10 years---I have completed a master's degree in education, yet still the suspended license for nonpayment of a minor speeding ticket is listed as a criminal record in Michigan. Employers are wary about hiring anyone with a criminal record. To think, this entire ordeal began with a traffic ticket for driving 7 miles over the speed limit. I have suffered anxiety, shame, anger and disbelief over how much a speeding ticket has impacted my life prospects. Statistically, minorities are disproportionately impacted by such traffic offenses, especially in the Midwest.

Anonymous

In 2003, Ireceived a speeding ticket for allegedly driving 7 miles over the speed limit or "driving while black" in Grand Rapids, MI. At the time, I was living on a shoe-string budget, and was unable to pay the ticket, so my driver's license was suspended. I must say I was unable to pay because the police were constantly pulling me over and profiling me for unreasonable stops, mainly for "what looked like defective equipment", swerving or speeding a couple of miles over the speed limit. I attempted to make payment arrangements, but the court held me in contempt anyway due to clerical mistakes. I take full responsibility for my inaction but the costs for not being able to pay were excessive for a speeding ticket. By the summer of 2003, my fines, court costs, and driver's license reinstatement fee had snowballed to a whopping $2,000. I nearly had to drop out of college to manage the court debt and the suspended driver's license (I could not drive to work or school with the suspension on my license.).

Fast forward 10 years---I have completed a master's degree in education, yet still the suspended license for nonpayment of the speeding ticket from 2003, is on my criminal record, yes, criminal record. Employers are wary about hiring anyone with a record no matter how minor the offense, so not only did I have the immediate court costs, but the speeding ticket has caused secondary effects, mainly career setbacks and loss of income. To think, this whole ordeal began with a traffic ticket for driving an alleged 7 miles over the speed limit. I have suffered anxiety, shame, anger, embarrassment, and disbelief over the impact a minor speeding ticket has had on my life prospects.

Overall, I have lived a quiet life; my favorite passtimes are reading, woodworking, gardening, sewing and spending time with my family. I am not one to play the victim, and have worked hard academically, professionally and personally. I cannot belief that this would happen to me because I was a poor minority college student at the time.

Anonymous

I was in college in 2003 when I received a traffic ticket for allegedly speeding 7 miles over the speed limit. Well, I paid the ticket a few days late, and unbeknownst to me, my license was suspended for the late payment. Even though I paid the fine for the civil infraction, speeding, the State of Michigan tacked on another $1,000 fee called a driver responsibility fee. So here I am, totally clueless, driving to work and school, trying to live the straight and narrow, on a suspended license for missing a minor speeding ticket.

A few weeks later, a cop pulls me over for some random reason, and informs me he has to TAKE ME TO JAIL because my license was suspended and I owe nearly $1,000 in driver responsibility fees. Luckily, I had enough money to pay the fees, but I was totally caught off guard. Why didn't the State tell me my license was suspended? It was like the cop was lying in wait, hoping to pull me over so the State could tack on more fees. Because I was driving on a suspended license, the State did indeed tack on more fees---an additional $500 for driving on a suspended license. When all was said and done, I paid over $2,000 for a minor speeding ticket. My license was suspended for nearly 6 months and I almost lost my job and nearly had to drop out of college to manage the fees, fines, reinstatement costs and the suspended license. Now, I have a criminal record for what driving 7 miles over the speed limit and paying my ticket late?! I'm not a criminal the State of Michigan and its corrupt legislators including Governor Granholm are the true criminals.

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