Miss a Traffic Ticket, Go to Jail? The Return of Debtor Prison


You Thought debtor prison Ended in the 18th century? Think again.

Editor's note: America has a long history of treating the poor like criminals, from legislation banning the
transportation of poor people across state lines to anti-vagrancy laws that could land you in jail if you didn't have a
job or a home. We've come to rely on the criminal justice system to deal with the poor, even as more and more
Americans fall into poverty. The following is part of a series that looks at the diverse ways poverty is criminalized in
America, such as laws targeting the homeless, the surveillance of welfare recipients, the re-emergence of debtor's
prisons, and extreme policing tactics like stop-and-frisk.

Kawana Young, a single mother of two kids, was arrested in Michigan after failing to pay money she owed as a result of minor traffic offenses. She was recently laid off from her job, and could not pay the fees she owed because she couldn’t find another source of employment. So a judge sentenced her to three days in jail. In addition, Young was charged additional fees for being booked and for room and board for a place she did not want to be. In total, she has been jailed five times for being unable to pay her debts. “It doesn’t make sense to jail people when they can’t pay because they definitely can’t pay while they’re in jail,” said Young. Who heard her? NOBODY.

My kids think I'm a deadbeat now. And I never can pay
so it's straight back to jail after every time before a judge.

Debtor prisons seem to belong in America's past. But if you think the existence of prisons for people who can’t afford to pay
their debts in the past, think again. Young’s ordeal, profiled in an American Civil Liberties Union report, began in 2005, after she was ticketed because she was driving without her license. (She'd forgotten it at home.) The Matter came to a head in 2010, when Young was arrested because she did not pay off all of her debts from previous traffic violations. That arrest led to the judge ordering Young to jail due to her inability to pay off the money which had tripled.

Prison time for poor people in debt remains something that is practiced throughout the United States, despite the fact that a
1983 Supreme Court decision ruled that a prisoner on probation who could not afford to pay his debts could not be thrown in jail for that reason. The practice of imprisoning people for debt is being fueled by the economic crash that has decimated state and city budgets. Debtor prisons are also on the rise thanks to the zeal of private companies that “file lawsuits against debtors and often  fail to serve them with notice of court dates or intentionally serve them at incorrect addresses,” as the Brennan Center for Justice’s  Inimai Chettiar noted. “When debtors do not show up, agencies procure arrest warrants from courts, leading to incarceration of the debtors. Bail is usually set at an amount equal to or higher than the original fees and fines they defendants couldn’t pay in the first place. All this has amounted to a  return of debtors prisons.”

A recent report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lays out the breadth of this problem. Titled “In For a Penny:
The Rise of America’s New Debtor Prisons,” the report examines how “day after day, indigent defendants are imprisoned for
failing to pay legal debts they can never hope to manage. In many cases, poor men and women end up jailed or threatened with
jail though they have no lawyer representing them.”

The practice of throwing people into jail got more attention last year due to a New York Times report examining “the
mushrooming of fines and fees levied by money-starved towns across the country and the for-profit businesses that administer
the system,” with the result being “growing numbers of poor people...ending up jailed and in debt for minor infractions.”

Ethan Bronner, a reporter for the New York Times, profiled 31-year-old Gina Ray, who was fined $179 for a speeding ticket.
Ray did not show up in court--she says the ticket had the wrong court date on it -- and her license was revoked. So the next time Ray got into trouble with the law was even worse. She was pulled over, and found to be driving without a license. “By then her fees added up to more than $1,500. Unable to pay, she was handed over to a private probation company and jailed — charged an additional fee for each day behind bars,” wrote Bronner. All because the cop wrote the date out wrong.

The phenomenon of debtor prison creates a two-tiered justice system. For poor people unable to pay up money they owe from
traffic infractions or other debts, jail becomes home for longer.

For the rich, it’s a different story. “Pay-or-stay sentences are no choice for the poor,” the  ACLU’s Michael Steinberg told The
Detroit News. “They translate to rich people writing a check and going home and poor people going to jail. It's a modern-day
debtor prison. This two-tiered system of justice is shameful, it's a waste of resources, it is unconstitutional, and it must be

Additionally, the two-tiered justice system means that poor people often have to pay even more than their initial fees and fines,
due to additional booking and jail fees. This leads to a toxic cycle where poor people are arrested for fees they can’t pay and
are then walloped with even more financial obligations. And going to jail disrupts life for these poor people, making it even
more difficult to find a job that would help them pay off their debt.

 Alex Kane is AlterNet's New York-based World editor, and an assistant editor for Mondoweiss. Follow him on Twitter