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When Serving Jail Time for Unpaid Debts Becomes a Debt Spiral

posted by Nathalie Martin

Tell me.  Are we allowed to do anything we like to those with the least power and money in our society? Are there no limits? We know that in some states, private actors have been permitted to charge 500-1,000% for loans, but what about public actors? Can you think of any debtor-credit practices that rise to the level of human right violations? This is question Chrystin Ondersma (Rutgers Newark School of Law) and I have been asking ourselves in connection with a project on which we are working.

Earlier this month, the New York Times ran a story that chronicled several people jailed for minor infractions (such as unpaid speeding tickets or other driving violations), and then charged huge prison costs after serving jail time resulting indirectly from these unpaid debts. For example, one woman was fined $179 for speeding, failed to show up at court (she says the ticket bore the wrong date), after which her license was revoked. When she was pulled over for driving without a license, her fees totaled over $1,500. Unable to pay, she was handed over to a private probation company and jailed, racking up an additional fee for every day behind bars. She’s been locked up three times for that one driving offense, serving 40 days, and now owes nearly $3,000. Another guy featured spent a total of 24 months in jail and owes $10,000 for what started out as very small dollar minor infractions. Read the article for more of the same.

But here is my question.....Are towns that are desperate for revenues turning to increased probation fees to make ends meet?  In  one paper, the Bipartisan Conference of State Court Administrators argues that in these traffic violations are becoming a tax on the poor. An Alabama Judge also claims that his state’s Legislature has pressured courts to produce revenue, and that some legislators even believe courts should be financially self-sufficient. Such fees are being used to fund retirement for court officials and make up for other shortfalls.

According to another study by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, lots of states (especially big populous ones) now impose large user fees on prisoners, which in turn impose hidden cost on communities, taxpayers and indigent people convicted of crimes. It would be one thing to charge these big fees for violent criminals. It is quite another to change them to people because they didn’t pay their debts.

One thing is clear. The devisors of these plans are not collections attorneys. If courts are that desperate for money, why not charge more to people bringing civil suits, rather than trying to raise money off the indigent. Wouldn’t that raise more revenue?

 

 

Comments

Ah, you seek logic, I sense an error in your ways.

When Leviathan came for those rich people with gross yearly incomes of over $250,000, I said nothing.

This may fall under peonage or debt bondage. There is a line of cases that interprets the 13th Amendment's prohibition on involuntary servitude to cover the various forms of debt bondage common in the American South through reconstruction and into the 20th Century. I think that SCOTUS case is Bailey v. Alabama.

The catch is that the 13th Amendment specifically excludes punishment for a crime from the prohibition against involuntary servitude. However, this is arguably not punishment for a crime. I think that you can persuasively argue that this is a system of coercion that uses jail or the threat of jail for the purpose or raising revenue.

Although these prisoners are not required to work for the jail, they are being coerced into turning over the economic value of their labor in the form of payments. Linking the coercive effect of imprisonment to the purpose of raising revenue, particularly when private collection agencies are used, brings this practice much closer to the late 19th and early 20th century cases that deal with involuntary servitude.

You guys are rockin' the comments on this one. Thanks very much!!

There are quite a few unemployed attorneys out and about. Crowd-source work with attorneys. Run some ads. Do the case work. See MIT's Tech Review this month on crowd-sourcing and managerial software.

What these people need to do is aquaint themselves with habeas corpus. You can only by jailed for refusal to pay but not inability to pay. A court can't punish for failure to perform an impossibility.

I think the story misses the basic points:

1. She was speeding and broke the law. She was held accountable for obeying the law. Her disregard for not following the law puts others who do at risk. She got what she deserved.

2. It was her responsibility to pay her fine. Her excuses are nothing more than her unwillingness to accept responsibility.

3. The state sends notification when your license is revoked. It appears she failed to take appropriate action and again broke the law by driving without a license.

It appears that you are making a case that individuals should not be held accountable for their actions or poor choices. If there are no consequences to not following the law, then you will have many individuals who choose not to do so.

You cannot disconnect cause & effect. This has nothing to do with "a tax on the poor". Nor does it have anything to do with a "debt spiral". It has to do with accountability. Welcome to the real world.

Chrismckinleync's comment has as its faulty premise the assumption that jail and involuntary servitude are the only options for holding people accountible for obeying the law.

Hey Chris, you might want to consider concerning yourself with the mote in your own eye instead. Karma's a bitch.

Heavy peanalties for minor offenses, no penalties for those who wrecked the world's ecomomy.

Last year I took an investment class. The teacher hoped that the crisis in europe would cause a shrinkage of what he called a welfare oriented system. Only later did we learn that this individual worked for a bank pricing tranches of subprime CDOs - the very heart of the disaster.

Chrismckinleync, she committed Speeding (Horrors!), an FTA (debatable), and DWS (with debatable notice). In return, she's jailed (?), billed for the jail time (??), convicted of failure to pay regardless of ability to pay (?????????), and then sent back to jail so we can do it again with stiffer penalties. How is this not a debt death spiral? Is your idea of a justice system based on Kafka's "Das Urteil"?

John Yard, I would submit that your "teacher" is one of the grossest welfare frauds of all, given that everything he did depended on his industry's having bought the regulators lock, stock, and barrel.

I hope the Tea Partiers enjoy getting paid in scrip. They're going to need it to purchase essential goods from the company store.

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