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Court Leaders Nationwide Send Message to Debtors’ Prisons: Courts Are Not ATMs.

Prison hall
Prison hall
Nusrat Choudhury,
Former Legal Director, ACLU of Illinois
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February 6, 2017

Last week, state court leaders from across the nation took critically important action against debtors’ prisons to ensure that people are not locked up simply because they are poor.

Following reports of the devastating effects of debtors’ prisons across the country — including in Ferguson, Georgia, Washington, Michigan, Mississippi, and Colorado — the top national organizations of state court leaders formed the National Task Force on Fines, Fees, and Bail Practices in 2016. This task force has now issued a bench card on the Lawful Collection of Legal Financial Obligations — a step-by-step guide for state and local judges to use to protect the rights of poor people who cannot afford to pay court fines and fees.

The principle of fairness enshrined in the Constitution and the way courts treat the poor are too often separate things in America. The Supreme Court ruled more than 30 years ago that people should never be locked up behind bars solely because they are unable to pay court fines and fees they cannot afford. But we have seen time and again that despite this ruling debtors’ prisons are a reality, with devastating impact on low-income people and their communities.

In 2014, Kevin Thompson, an unemployed teenager, was jailed for five nights because he could not pay $838 in traffic fines and fees in the allotted 30-day period. Kevin explained:

I spent five days in the DeKalb County Jail where it was cold and dirty, and I didn’t get enough food. I felt ashamed, scared, and sad during those five days. It hurt to be separated from my family. And even after I was released, I felt scared that police might arrest me and jail me again for no good reason. After all DeKalb County and JCS essentially jailed me for being poor.

In 2016, Qumotria Kennedy, a single mother of three living in poverty, was arrested and jailed when she could not pay $1001 in cash for unpaid traffic fines and fees. Kennedy lost her part-time job cleaning a motel and was separated from her teenage daughter. Neither Thompson nor Kennedy should have been punished because of their poverty.

Had the judges who handled Thompson and Kennedy’s traffic cases been trained on the task force’s bench card, they would have known that debtors’ prisons are unconstitutional. The bench card would have guided them to hold an ability-to-pay hearing and to consider readily available alternatives before punishing a person with jail for nonpayment of a fine or a fee. It also would have helped them evaluate critical factors like income relative to the federal poverty guidelines and receipt of public assistance when determining a person’s ability to pay.

Maureen O’Conner, the task force co-chair and chief justice of the Ohio Supreme Court, explained the purpose of the bench card succinctly: “In too many instances, judges are ignoring fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution, while local politicians treat the court system as an ATM for their spending priorities.”

The task force’s action is the latest in a growing wave of reform by federal, state, and local leaders across the country to address the illegalities and ills of debtors’ prisons.

In 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a strong letter calling on state chief justices and court administrators to ensure that court rules and procedures on fine and fee collection afford due process and equal protection of the law and align with sound public policy. State high courts in Ohio and Washington had already done that by adopting bench cards to train and guide judges on fine and fee collection. The Michigan Supreme Court followed suit by amending its state court rules to enact guidelines for judges. And cities like Biloxi, Mississippi, adopted sweeping reforms as a result of litigation by the ACLU and others, including a bench card and the creation of a full-time public defender’s office to represent indigent people.

The tide is turning. State and local court leaders should act now. If they don’t comply with the law and the Constitution, they’ll be sued. Judges and court staff should be trained on the task force’s bench card immediately to ensure that fair and equal treatment in our justice system does not wait another day.

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