Criminalization of Poverty

Contrary to what many people may believe, there are debtors’ prisons throughout the United States where people are imprisoned because they are too poor to pay fines and fees.

The United States Supreme Court in Bearden v. Georgia, 461 U.S. 660 (1983), held that courts cannot imprison a person for failure to pay a criminal fine unless the failure to pay was “willful.” However, this constitutional edict is often ignored.

Courts impose substantial fines as punishment for petty crimes as well as more serious ones. Besides the fines, the courts are assessing more and more fees to help meet the costs of the ever-increasing size of the criminal justice system: fees for ankle bracelets for monitoring; anger management classes; drug tests, crime victims’ funds, crime laboratories, court clerks, legal representation, various retirement funds, and private probation companies that do nothing more than collect a check every month.

People who cannot afford the total amount assessed may be allowed to pay in monthly installments, but in many jurisdictions those payments are accompanied by fees to a private probation company that collects them. A typical fee is $40 per month. People who lose their jobs or encounter unexpected family hardships and are unable to maintain payments may be jailed without any inquiry into their ability to pay.

There are more fees for those in jails or prisons. There are high costs for telephone calls. Incarcerated people are charged fees for medical services. A new trend is “room and board” fees in prisons and jails.

SCHR Files on Behalf of Detainees who cannot pay

Ora Lee Hurley spent nearly a year at the Georgia Department of Corrections, Atlanta Diversion Center due to her inability to pay a $705 fine from a 15-year-old drug conviction because she was charged for staying there. A court had ordered Ms. Hurley imprisoned until her fine was paid. While held at the Diversion Center, Ms. Hurley was employed full-time at a restaurant that sent her paycheck directly to the Department of Corrections. Although Ms. Hurley never missed a day of work and earned over $7,000, the Department took nearly every penny of her earnings. Left with only $23 per month to buy food, toiletries, and pay her fine, Ms. Hurley was being confined in perpetuity. She was released only after SCHR filed a habeas petition on her behalf. For a copy of the habeas petition, click here.To view the Atlanta Journal Constitution article, click here.

SCHR is working to secure lawyers for Indigent Parents

In 2011, the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) filed Miller, et al.  v. Deal, et al., a civil rights class action lawsuit that seeks to secure lawyers for indigent parents who have been jailed or are in danger of being jailed without counsel for being too poor to fulfill their child support obligations.

In Georgia, aggressive efforts to incarcerate parents for child support debt are often focused on the poorest of the poor, rather than on well-to-do parents who willfully dodge their child support obligations. Georgia is also one of the few states that forces indigent parents who owe child support debt to plead for their liberty, without counsel, against an experienced, state-funded lawyer who is trying to send them to jail.

In the past two years, Georgia has jailed over 3,500 unrepresented parents for child support debt. Many of these parents are held for months-some for over a year-even though they have no money to pay and no way to earn money while in jail. You can read more about this case, here.

SCHR Ends Jail Fees for Pre-Trial Detainees

In some cases, jails have even charged room and board fees for people detained on charges but not convicted of any crime. For 17 years, the Clinch County Jail in Homerville charged those in its custody a daily room and board fee. Even though Georgia law did not authorize – and in fact prohibited – such charges, the County Sheriff charged inmates $18 per day. Many people were too poor to pay the fees upon their release. The Sheriff and his deputies required them to sign notes promising to pay the fees in installments, or return to jail. On several occasions, the Sheriff charged people thousands of dollars, failing to return the money even when criminal charges were dismissed. A lawsuit filed by SCHR, ultimately settled, required the Sheriff to return the illegal fees. For a copy of the Complaint, click here. For a copy of the Plaintiffs’ Motion for Summary Judgment, click here. For a copy of newspaper articles related to the case, click here. To hear a report by National Public Radio on Clinch County Jails, click here.

SCHR ends Debtors' Prison in Gulfport, Mississippi

In an effort to crack down on people who owed misdemeanor fines, the City of Gulfport employed a fine collection task force. The task force trolled through predominately African-American neighborhoods, rounding up people who had outstanding court fines. After arresting and jailing them, the City of Gulfport processed these people through a court proceeding at which no defense attorney was present or even offered. Many people were jailed for months after hearings lasting just seconds. While the City collected money, it also packed the jail with hundreds of people who couldn’t pay, including people who were sick, physically disabled, and/or limited by mental disabilities. SCHR filed suit to stop these illegal practices. For a copy of the Complaint, click here. For related news coverage, click here.

Other financial distortions

Debtors prisons are but one example of financial incentives that have a distorting effect on the criminal justice system. Criminal justice policies – how many prison beds to build, whether to arrest someone or cite them, what sentences to impose – should be primarily concerned with making us safer. But the profit motive is increasingly distorting the system.

Many counties throughout the South, for example, are committing scarce dollars to building larger jails in anticipation of securing a lucrative contract with the federal government to house detainees for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the United States Marshals Service or even prisoners from other counties or other states. One example would be the importation of incarcerated women from Connecticut to a private prison in Aliceville, AL. As another example, the design of work release programs - something that should be focused on developing skills and reducing recidivism - is often driven primarily by an interest in collecting as much money as possible from the prisoner-workers. The privatization of probation, imprisonment, and other parts of the criminal justice system create incentives for expanding the criminalization of poor people.