The class-action complaint (pdf) alleges the city of Austin routinely jails people too poor to pay traffic tickets and other fines. This is only the most recent in a series of similar lawsuits. Earlier this month, the ACLU sued a Georgia county. Other lawsuits include Benton County, WA, Biloxi, MS, and New Orleans. [BuzzFeed]
In many states, if you are convicted of a crime you will be charged a fee for the cost of prosecution (and sometimes defense). Then, after you have served your time, you can be tossed in jail again if you don’t pay those fees.
Charging criminal defendants for the cost of prosecuting them makes a certain kind of sense. The problem is that many criminal defendants can’t afford those fees, so the end result is debtors prison. It is unjust, and the ACLU is looking to make an example of Benton County, Washington. It’s not a random choice. “[L]ast year, an NPR analysis of jail records found that about 1 out of every 4 people in jail for a misdemeanor offense was there because he failed to pay court fines and fees.”
That’s insane. A quarter of the people in jail for a misdemeanor in Benton County are there because they didn’t pay court fees! Sounds like the ACLU lawsuit was long overdue, if anything.
That image comes from this report (pdf) by the ACLU-New Hampshire, and it’s pretty much the definition of debtors’ prison right there.
The courts will say they are just trying to enforce their judgments, of course. And that’s technically true. It’s also effectively the criminalization of poverty — debtors’ prison — and it needs to stop.
Yes, it is technically illegal to put people in jail for not paying a debt. However it is perfectly legal to put people in jail if they don’t pay a court fine, which isn’t technically a debt because a court isn’t technically a creditor. Even though you owe money to it. Make sense?
No, not really. Because whatever you call it, you can end up in jail if you don’t pay it.
If this has you worried, read How to Avoid Ending Up in Jail for Debt!
Consumerist picked up on the article about debtors being thrown in jail, and a surprising (to me, anyway) number of commenters chimed in to support the debt collectors. For example, one commenter wrote
Not paying your debt = stealing. For stealing you go to jail. I am on the side of the little man, but there is no excuse to run up a debt and then simply choose not to pay it.
Debtors’ prison was supposedly eliminated in the United States in the 19th century, but in the 21st, people are still being arrested and tossed into jail for debts. It just takes an extra step these days.
This morning, I sat in court and watched a debt collector get six bench warrants for debts under $1,000. I recognized the names of all the plaintiffs: Palisades, LVNV, and Capital One. Palisades and LVNV, and maybe Capital One, probably would not have won their lawsuit if the defendants challenged them. But each defendant defaulted when he or she did not answer the lawsuit, and gave up their right to challenge it.
After getting a default judgment, the debt collector asked the court to issue an order for disclosure. An order for disclosure orders the debtor to disclose his or her assets—where they keep their money. Like any other court order, failure to obey will result in jail time. This makes perfect sense under ordinary circumstances, but debt collectors use the courts like an assembly line leading to jail.
The problem is not necessarily the court rules and Minnesota statutes that the debt collectors are using. Defendants should have to answer a lawsuit to challenge it, and court orders must be enforceable. But in order to do those things, defendants must understand their rights, as well as the documents they receive. Unfortunately, the rules and statutes, along with the court’s forms, are practically incomprehensible to non-lawyers. As a result, non-lawyers, like the defendants who will be tossed in jail as a result of what I saw this morning, probably had no idea how to answer their lawsuit, or that they would go to jail if they did not disclose their assets.
Debt collectors are just taking advantage of a system that is unfriendly and nearly impenetrable to non-lawyers.
I understand the need for courts to enforce their orders, but when hard times mean that a state like Florida is throwing thousands of people into jail just for failing to pay fines of a couple hundred dollars, something ain’t right.
The problem, of course, is that state courts are strapped for cash along with everyone else. In many states, court fines are a major source of court funding.
As Rebekah Diller of the Brennan Center for Justice said:
“Judges . . . should not become “debt collectors in robes,” which she called both demeaning to the judges and humiliating for the people who must stand before them.
Plus, debtors’ prison seems a bit, well, medieval for a modern society. Prison does not exactly pay well, either. If the courts want people to pay their fines, locking them away from their income seems like a poor strategy.
(photo: Still Burning)