The Hot Topic: Modern Day Debtors’ Prisons: The Criminalization of Poverty and Those Who Profit From It sheds light on the plight of individuals imprisoned by virtue of being too poor to pay. Sanctions and their associated fees can quickly accumulate to a price far more than those charged expect–far more than many of those charged are able to pay. The Modern Day Debtors’ Prison Hot Topic highlights the vast array of fees that can accumulate after the smallest of infractions and how our system operates to criminalize those incapable of paying.
The first speaker, Neil Sobol, from Texas A&M University, defined “Debtors’ Prisons” as prisons for persons who are unable to pay their fines and fees. Their incarceration is a direct result of their inability–not reluctance or unwillingness, their inability–to pay. Mr. Sobol spoke mainly on criminal justice debt and how it supports the Modern Day Debtors’ Prisons structure. Individuals who are arrested can expect fines and fees from every stage of the arrest to release. Fines can be assessed for bail, housing while incarcerated, reimbursement of public defender services, payment plans, house arrest, and more. The Modern Day Debtors’ Prisons Hot Topic discussed the many hidden fines and fees that accompany minimum to major sanctions and the additional punishments incurred by those individuals who are unable to pay.
During Mr. Sobol’s discussion, he raised the subject of the Department of Justice’s (DOJ’s) Investigative Report on the Ferguson Police Department. When the report was first released, as an over-eager, minority law student, I read the Ferguson Report. The system of fee assessment and consequence–the underlying structure for Modern Day Debtors’ Prisons–was a major issue examined in the Ferguson Report:
“In 2013 alone, the court issued over 9,000 warrants on cases stemming in large part from minor violations such as parking infractions, traffic tickets, or housing code violations [. . . ] [T]he court’s fine assessment procedures do not adequately provide for a defendant to seek a fine reduction on account of financial incapacity or to seek alternatives to payment such as community service. City and court officials have adhered to these court practices despite acknowledging their needlessly harmful consequences. […] [T]hese court practices exacerbate the harm of Ferguson’s unconstitutional police practices. They impose a particular hardship upon Ferguson’s most vulnerable residents, especially upon those living in or near poverty. Minor offenses can generate crippling debts, result in jail time because of an inability to pay, and result in the loss of a driver’s license, employment, or housing.”
The concerns in regards to Modern Day Debtors’ Prisons are not new. For hundreds of years, Debtors’ Prisons existed in some form. Although not the formal Debtors’ Prisons they were centuries ago, the jailing of persons for their inability to pay is still a central issue in our current justice system–both civil and criminal. If an individual does not have the ability to pay, he/she can be charged higher fees and will run the risk of being incarcerated for failure to pay. It is an unfair cycle of debt and consequence that punishes the poor for their inability to pay.
Following Mr. Sobol’s discussion, Sara Totonchi, Executive Director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, began her discussion by highlighting several minimum infractions that led to exorbitant fees for the charged. In some instances, these minor infractions led to months-long incarceration. Ms. Sotochi’s first example, Mr. Edwards, was ticketed for burning leaves in his yard without a permit. Mr. Edwards had no running water, suffered with intellectual disabilities, and was living on food stamps. He was initially fined $500. He was placed on a payment plan with a private company that multiplied his debt to $1,200, with an immediate down payment of $250. He was still unable to pay. Due to his inability to immediately pay the down payment in court, he was taken to jail. The Southern Poverty Center represented Mr. Edwards and challenged the private company’s payment plan practices. The case aided in the close of the private payment company that was managing Mr. Edwards’ debt.
Ms. Totonchi addressed several instances similar to Mr. Edwards’–instances of fines being assessed for unpaid probation fees, threats of incarceration for the inability to pay minor traffic infractions, and courts assessing victim fees to victims of domestic abuse. Don’t just take my word for it. Have a listen. The Modern Day Debtor’s Prison Hot Topic recording is currently available on AALLnet, along with the discussion PowerPoints. If you have a moment, I highly encourage you to listen. Both Mr. Sobol and Ms. Totonchi draw several real world examples to demonstrate how prevalent Modern Day Debtors’ Prisons are in our current justice system and what we can do to challenge these unjust practices.
 U.S. Dep’t of Justice, Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department 3-4 (March 4, 2015), https://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/opa/press-releases/attachments/2015/03/04/ferguson_police_department_report.pdf.