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Debtors Prison Returns To America

debtors prison

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Many Americans are serving weeks or months in jail simply because they are broke, despite a Supreme Court ruling that banned debtors prisons.

An investigation by National Public Radio (NPR) found that large numbers of Americans have been incarcerated because they lacked the cash to pay fines of as little as $25. In many cases, the involvement of courts only drove up their debt.

“They put me in jail for 10 days, and I just didn’t have the money,” Jared Thornburg said of police in Westminster, Colorado. Thornburg was jailed [1] because he couldn’t cover a $306.25 fine for a traffic ticket. “They spent a lot more putting me in jail [2] for 10 days than the amount I owed them.”

The offense that led to the fine and incarceration was making a wrong turn, Thornburg told The Denver Post. After being pulled over he was also cited for driving an unsafe vehicle.

To make matters worse, Thornburg lost his job at Taco Bell because he was in jail — meaning he was unable to go out and earn the money to pay the fine. The Brighton, Colorado, resident was jailed even though he was making progress and had paid $61.25 of the fine.

Pay or Go to Jail?

Thornburg was a victim of a practice the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has labeled “pay or serve.” In such a case, a judge tells a defendant that he or she must pay a fine or court fees immediately, or go to jail [3]. The Supreme Court in 1983 banned debtors prisons unless the person “wilfully” refuses to pay.

New book reveals how to keep this “gangster” economy from murdering your money… [4]

The NPR investigation shows that courts all over the country are using pay or serve to extort money from the poor. Some flagrant examples include:

Some courts in Colorado have violated the state’s constitution which says “no person shall be imprisoned for debt” with pay or serve, the ACLU alleged.

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“Jailing Colorado residents because they are too poor to pay their fines is a bad idea for multiple reasons,” Mark Silverstein, the legal director for the ACLU of Colorado, told The Denver Post. “It doesn’t get the fine paid. It wastes resources. It worsens poverty. It unfairly creates a two-tiered justice system.”

Courts as Money Machines

The NPR investigation found that defendants are regularly charged large amounts of money for “court services.” If they cannot afford to pay the fees, the poor are jailed, and some defendants still owe the money after serving the time.

Some of the fees a defendant can be hit with include:

In Allegan County, Michigan, Frederick Cunningham was ordered to pay $1,000 in court costs — $500 went to Cunningham’s court-appointed attorney and $500 went to the court.

“The only reason that the court is in operation and doing business at that point in time is because that defendant has come in and is a user of those services,” Allegan County Circuit Court Administrator Michael Day told NPR. “They don’t necessarily see themselves as a customer because, obviously, they’re not choosing to be there. But in reality they are.”

It looks like in many cases, poverty is now a crime in America.

What do you think? Should people have to serve time in jail for not having the money to pay fines? Let us know in the comments section below. 

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