Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Is Being Poor A Crime?

There was a law that was outlawed over 200 years ago with the 14th Amendment and reinforced more than 30 years ago by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Bearden v. Georgia. According to the ruling, judges are not allowed to send people to jail just because they are too poor to pay their court fines. Instead, judges are supposed to consider whether or not a defendant has the means to pay but is “willfully” refusing to do so. However, the Supreme Court did not outline how courts and judges are supposed to determine if a defendant is “willfully” not paying, leading to thousands of Americans being locked up for weeks and sometimes years for something as simple as a minor traffic violation.

The expectations of judges vary widely, with some expecting defendants to borrow the money from family members or use their welfare or disability income to pay court fees. But, what makes matters worse is the fact that defendants are charged for government services that were once free, including some that are constitutionally required. At least 41 states charge room and board for prison stays; at least 44 states bill offenders for their own probation and parole supervision; at least 43 states charge defendants for a public defender.

Civil liberties groups have uncovered 15 states that have seen in increase in arrest warrants for debtors, and the 2008 financial crisis prompted a rise in debtor incarcerations. People who often times committ crimes because they're poor are charged fees to access to their legal rights such as the right to have an attorney and then they are incarcerated when they cannot pay.

The stories uncovered by various news agencies become more and more unbelievable the deeper they dig into these modern day debtor’s prisons. Stephen Papa of Grand Rapids, Michigan spent three weeks in jail for sneaking into an abandoned building because he was slapped with $2,600 in fees. Kyle Dewitt spent three days in jail for not being able to pay hundreds of dollars in fees associated with a criminal charge for catching a bass out of season.

Thomas Barrett, whose only income was from selling his own blood plasma, was slapped with hundreds of dollars in fines and fees for stealing a $2 can of beer. Despite skipping meals in an attempt to make payments, he eventually spent a year in jail. People are not just sent to jail for criminal justice debt but also for private debt; Robin Sanders was pulled over and taken to jail for an outstanding medical bill.

Disproportionately impacting the poor and people of color is a two tiered system that places people’s freedom on their ability to pay what sometimes amounts to thousands of dollars in fines and fees for menial traffic or quality of life citations. It should come as no surprise that the rise of private prisons has coincided with the rise of private probation companies that operate as debt collectors with handcuffs and minimal to no oversight. A report issued by Human Rights Watch specifically cites “pay-only” probation practices that exploit poor people who must set up installments because they are unable to pay an entire fine on a specific court date as also disproportionately impacting minorities.

An increasing number of municipalities are also relying on fees to balance budget shortfalls, leaving a city’s most vulnerable residents to plug financial shortfalls. The circumstances faced by those who are put in jail for their inability to pay as they lose jobs, housing and other basic necessities has led some to commit suicide.

Prison time is not the only thing haunting America’s poor; in at least eight states, a person can have their driver’s license suspended until a criminal justice debt is paid, and seven states require payment in full in order for people to regain the right to vote.

America is already the world’s leader in incarceration and is no longer considered by many to be the land of the free but rather a place where people are commodified for profit and freedom must be purchased. The country’s most vulnerable citizens are bearing the biggest burden of an immoral and corrupt legal and economic system. The International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights lists debtors’ imprisonment as a civil rights violation, and it is time for America to treat its most vulnerable citizens with enough dignity to not value money more than their freedom.


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