The South's Debtor's Prisons Receiving Much Needed Attention

The South's Debtor's Prisons Receiving Much Needed Attention

July 5, 2012 9:25 AM | Posted by Borden, Lisa | Print this page

I have previously posted here about the problem of courts in the Southeast running debtor's prisons.  You might think that debtor's prisons became a thing of the past, after having been abolished in the 1800s, or at least after the United State Supreme Court announced in Bearden v. Georgia that it is unconstitutional to jail people for being too poor to pay a fine.  But you'd be wrong.

Much of Baker Donelson's pro bono work throughout the South has focused on assisting the homeless, as well as other indigent populations.  In those contexts, we have learned that debtor's prisons, though unconstitutional, still exist. What often happens is that the individual has a traffic offense or a misdemeanor that comes with fines that he cannot begin to afford. He either fails to pay, or fails to appear in court because he is afraid of what will happen when he says he can’t pay. This is not an irrational fear – there are many people in jails around the Southeastern United States who are there because they are poor and can’t pay fines. The municipal courts often refuse to recognize their indigent status, and refuse to allow community service in lieu of fines. Poor people are jailed, repeatedly, over traffic and petty offense fines they cannot pay. They lose jobs and housing and even custody of their children while they are jailed, and then additional fines are added to what they already owe for the privilege of staying in the jail.

Even those who aren't wrongfully jailed face incredible obstacles as a result of these practices. One of the biggest obstacles for these individuals to overcome is the lack of a driver's license or state identification card. With outstanding fines and/or an arrest warrant for failure to pay or appear, the individual cannot apply for a new or reinstated license or an official identification card. Without these, they cannot find a job, apply for disability benefits or housing, or do many mundane daily things you or I can do without even thinking about them.

I have personally represented people who have spent weeks in jail and lost everything in this way, and Baker Donelson has participated and is currently participating in federal lawsuits to force individual cities and towns to change their policies. There must be a better way.

Thankfully, this tragic problem is receiving a fresh round of attention.  In Monday's New York Times, Ethan Bronner's excellent article "Poor Land In Jail As Companies Add Huge Fees for Probation," focused on the additional burden imposed on the poor by the use of private probation companies that add even more fees, and relentlessly hound their hapless prey with collection efforts.  On Tuesday evening, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow Show also featured a segment on the subject - click here to watch. 

I hope the glare of the public spotlight continues to shine on these heinous practices, and that the inability to continue them in the shadows will bring change.