WTF? Our Tax Dollars Are Being Spent to Jail a Vet for Being Poor

After he returned from Iraq both homeless and out of work, Stephan Papa spent one night in a drunken misadventure. Convicted of destruction of property and resisting arrest, Mr. Papa was sentenced to pay $2600 in fines and court fees.

If Mr. Papa had been able to pay the first $50 installment toward his debt on the spot, he would have been able to walk out of court. But he only had $25 on him. Mr. Papa told the judge he would get his first paycheck in a week. He pleaded not to be thrown in jail for falling a mere $25 short: "I tried really hard to get this job, and I'd really like to keep it," he said.

I think we can all pretty much agree that helping a vet find stable employment after service overseas is a right thing to do, something our laws and regulations should help to achieve, not disrupt. Well, here's what happened instead: Mr. Papa found a job, but because of a judge's decision to jail him for $25, he lost it.

Instead of letting him go to work, the judge ordered Mr. Papa to serve 22 days in jail for nonpayment of his fines and fees – and, in a wildly tone-deaf move, also ordered Papa to "maintain stable employment" as a condition of probation once he got out of jail. Not surprisingly, when Mr. Papa called his boss after his release, he found out his position had been filled by another person. Although he's now gotten another job, it pays less than his previous one, and he is struggling to pay the $2,000 in fines, fees, and restitution that he continues to owe the court.

Let's take stock of what this government action "achieved." One veteran mired in debt after being needlessly jailed for the better part of a month. Taxpayers out thousands of dollars for locking someone up for 22 days because he couldn't pay $50 on the spot. And a mass incarceration crisis made worse by illogical practices like this one.

Debtors' prisons are unconstitutional, according to a 1983 Supreme Court decision. And yet, as last week's NPR series "Guilty and Charged" makes clear, stories like Mr. Papa's are not isolated events. All across the country, we're seeing the rise of an "offender-funded" criminal justice system – a Dickensian push by courts to fund the criminal justice system on the backs of the people least able to afford it – and the accompanying explosion of modern-day debtors' prisons: the cruel, dysfunctional enforcement mechanism for collecting these fines and fees.

Courts across the country regularly charge criminal defendants for their public defenders, bill them for room and board during jail stays, and charge them for probation "services." Indeed, in 48 states, these fees have actually increased since 2010. Some of the worst practices come from states we normally think of as being progressive, such as Washington, which automatically charges 12 percent interest on unpaid fines and fees, even during the period of a person's incarceration.

As Papa's story makes clear, the judicial system is spending a lot of money jailing poor people for their lack of money, when it should be questioning whether incarceration is the right solution to recover excessive fines and fees imposed on people who are simply too poor to pay. Not only is this plan doomed to cost more than it collects, but it's just one more example of how our criminal justice system has gone out of control, needlessly throwing away lives and livelihoods and punishing the poor more harshly than the rich.

Even if judges and legislators didn't intend to create these injustices, they need to act now to end them.

Learn more about the debtors' prisons and other civil liberty issues: Sign up for breaking news alertsfollow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

Add a comment (11)
Read the Terms of Use

Anonymous

It's a racket, like a prostitution or drug ring. A way for the state to take money from people.
I don't get why so many veterans are homeless. I asked my friend, who's a Vietnam Veteran but lucky enough to never have been homeless, and he said "that would be because the people who send them to war don't care what happens to them when they come home."
He's especially livid with John McCain, who voted no on giving veterans further assistance. He said "I think Mr. McCain should have been forced to stay in the POW Camp, see how long it would take his ass to figure out that not everybody GETS lucky and that he should be damn grateful that he isn't one of the unlucky veterans."
He thinks that all the people who "authorize war should also go out to fight it too." He thinks they would be more careful when they consider whether we really need to be involved in armed conflict if had to be active participants in every one they authorized.

Anonymous

Is there an equal protection case to be made here? It seems pretty clear to me that, when bank account balance is the deciding factor in whether or not a 22 day jail sentence is imposed, "Equal Justice Under Law" is not being provided - despite that principle's enshrinement on the building of the Supreme Count, not to mention the constitution. I would love to hear the ACLUs take on the constitutionality of this sort of imprisonment, and whether they intend to pursue any cases, if they believe there are any to be made.

Anonymous

WAKE UP AMERICA RIGHT HERE IS A PERFECT VIOLATION OF THE 8TH AMENDMENT!! : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eighth_Amendment_to_the_United_States_Const...
"The Eighth Amendment (Amendment VIII) to the United States Constitution is the part of the United States Bill of Rights (ratified December 15, 1791[1]) prohibiting the federal government from imposing excessive bail, excessive fines or cruel and unusual punishments, including torture. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that this amendment's Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause also applies to the states. The phrases in this amendment originated in the English Bill of Rights of 1689."

Anonymous

He was entrapped into the situation and this Amendment #8 has been deliberately ignored. "The Eighth Amendment (Amendment VIII) to the United States Constitution is the part of the United States Bill of Rights (ratified December 15, 1791[1]) prohibiting the federal government from imposing excessive bail, excessive fines or cruel and unusual punishments, including torture. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that this amendment's Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause also applies to the states. The phrases in this amendment originated in the English Bill of Rights of 1689."

Anonymous

Just one more part of the Constitution being dismantled by the now heartless politicians that rely on extreme tactics and "to hell with common sense!" Like I've said for years and will continue saying..., This is no longer a Republican/Democracy. As we were warned and never took the time to remember, "A government of extremes is no government at all. And I'll bet you'll say it doesn't bother me. Not yet it doesn't. But your future lies ahead of you now. And Jesus is the only one who can stop armed conflict. I suggest you others set your goals a lot lower.

Anonymous

It happens all the time...

A homeless person steals a $3 sandwich from the corner store. They get caught. Issued a summons. They appear in court, plead guilty, hit with a $125 fine plus court costs and 120 hours community service.

They manage to pay the fine, but since they do not drive and all of the places to do community service are not accessible via public transportation, they do not complete the 120 hours.

Picked up on a warrant and put in jail until they get a hearing.

Anonymous

Wish more attention was paid to vet s who are disabled and homeless than ones who do stupid petty crimes. Sure this is stupid, well create los of a job and then ask that you maintain one, but it appears the judge didn't violate law or regs, just common sense? This is not like the not our fault we are disabled agency delays denials discriminations that put many of us out or leave us to suffer disability in the road.

Anonymous

Wish more attention was paid to vet s who are disabled and homeless than ones who do stupid petty crimes. Sure this is stupid, well create los of a job and then ask that you maintain one, but it appears the judge didn't violate law or regs, just common sense? This is not like the not our fault we are disabled agency delays denials discriminations that put many of us out or leave us to suffer disability in the road.

Anonymous

I'm a vet, and I fucking hate this country now.

Anonymous

John McCain was a POW for almost 6 years. Your friend should know what he's talking about before opening his mouth. If Mr. Papa did not want to end up in prison, maybe he shouldn't have been arrested in the first place.

Pages

Sign Up for Breaking News