Not content to already incarcerate a far higher percentage of their populations than anywhere else on the globe, many states of these United States are once again throwing people in jail for their inability to pay debts, fines and court costs.
More than 5,000 debt collection arrest warrants have been signed by judges in the U.S. since January 2010, according to the Wall Street Journal. In some states, debt collection arrest warrants can be issued if a borrower ignores court order to settle a debt or fails to attend a hearing...
One hundred and fifty years ago, we decided as a country this was a bad idea...
Debtors' prisons were prevalent throughout the United States up until the mid-1800s. The United States eliminated the imprisonment of debtors under federal law in 1833 leaving the practice of debtors' prisons to states.Forty years ago, the US Supreme Court decided that such practices, even by states, were unconstitutional...
In 1970, the Supreme Court ruled in Williams v. Illinois that extending a maximum prison term because a person is too poor to pay fines or court costs violates the right to equal protection...
...in Tate v. Short, the Court found it unconstitutional to impose a fine as a sentence and then automatically convert it into a jail term solely because the defendant is indigent and cannot forthwith pay the fine in full.
... in 1983 in Bearden v. Georgia the Court ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment bars courts from revoking probation for a failure to pay a fine without first inquiring into a person's ability to pay and considering whether there are adequate alternatives to imprisonment.
Unfortunately, news of Supreme Court decisions seems to be taking a long while to trickle down...
... more than a third of U.S. states allow debtors to be jailed for non payment... fifteen states sampled have jurisdictions that arrest people for failing to pay debt or appear at debt related hearings.The list of the fifteen states with such laws as listed by Wikipedia does not include Ohio. In fact, Ohio has specific constitutional provisions against such practices. However the ACLU in Ohio just released a detailed report showing that de facto debtors' prisons exist in Ohio as well.
Preying on the poor and desperate, Ohio has been forcing those without means into an endless cycle of court appearances, additional fines, more jail time and ultimately increased debt.
... people facing jail time were informed ((by the court)) of the total amount owed and, without any inquiry into their financial situations, assigned arbitrary monthly payment plans. At no time were they informed of their right to counsel. The court informed them that, if they did not stay current in these payment plans, they would be required to turn themselves in to jail on a specific date several months in the future. On that date, if a person had not paid nor reported to jail, an arrest warrant would be issued. The individual was eventually picked up by police, brought to jail, and incarcerated for ten days with no bond available. After ten days they were typically released, having been charged additional fees for warrants and transportation. For poor Ohioans with no way to pay the fines and costs, the tragic cycle soon repeated...Even worse, this entire illegal system makes no sense from a social or economic perspective:
In towns across the state, thousands of people face the looming specter of incarceration every day, simply because they are poor.Here's one person's story.
The U.S. Constitution, the Ohio Constitution, and Ohio Revised Code all prohibit debtors' prisons. The law requires that, before jailing anyone for unpaid fines, courts must determine whether an individual is too poor to pay. Jailing a person who is unable to pay violates the law, and yet municipal courts and mayors' courts across the state continue this draconian practice. Moreover, debtors' prisons actually waste taxpayer dollars by arresting and incarcerating people who will simply never be able to pay their fines, which are in any event usually smaller than the amount it costs to arrest and jail them.
Fortunately, according the the ACLU report, some counties in Ohio have been cleaning up their act - if only temporarily while under intense scrutiny - and the Ohio ACLU has asked that the Ohio Supreme Court halt these practices.
Debtors' prison terms aren't confined to those who run directly afoul of the justice system; those incurring fees and fines due to felonies, misdemeanors or infractions. Being thrown in jail can also result from the insidious actions of debt collectors.
Two years ago, the Wall Street Journal reported - after interviewing twenty judges across the country - that the number of borrowers who were threatened with arrest in their courtrooms had "surged since the financial crisis began." ... some borrowers who were jailed had "no idea before being locked up that they were sued to collect an outstanding debt" because of "sloppy, incomplete or even false documentation." ... it was becoming more and more common for debtors to serve time in jail... some debtors are even required to pay for their time spent in jail...Get sick. Recover and go to jail. Or die quickly. It's your choice.
Back in 2011, NPR told the story of what happened to an Illinois woman named Robin Sanders:
She was driving home when an officer pulled her over for having a loud muffler. But instead of sending her off with a warning, the officer arrested Sanders, and she was taken right to jail.
"That's when I found out I had a warrant for failure to appear in Macoupin County. And I didn’t know what it was about."
Sanders owed $730 on a medical bill. She says she didn't even know a collection agency had filed a lawsuit against her.
"They say they send out these court notices, and nobody gets them," Sanders says.
She spent four days in jail waiting for her father to raise $500 for her bail. That money was then turned over to the collection agency.