Imprisoned for Debt

Cash-Strapped States Resurrect “Debtors’ Prisons”
Nadia Prupis
t r u t h o u t | Report
06 October 2010

Two reports published by NYU’s Brennan Center for
Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)
reveal a rising trend of patently unconstitutional
practices in cash-strapped states, where a growing
number of impoverished people are jailed for being
unable to pay their legal fees – including charges for
use of public defenders, a guaranteed right in the
United States. The resurgence of these draconian
“debtors’ prisons” has been documented in at least 13 of
the 15 states with the largest prison populations in the
country, including California, Arizona, Michigan and

“Incarcerating people simply because they cannot afford
to pay their legal debts is not only unconstitutional
but also has a devastating impact upon men and women
whose only crime is that they are poor,” said ACLU
senior staff attorney Eric Balaban.

Many states view the fees as a method for helping to
alleviate budget deficits. In New Orleans, Louisiana,
legal fines comprise almost two-thirds of criminal
courts’ operating budgets. But the ACLU found in its
report, “In for a Penny: The Rise of America’s New
Debtors’ Prisons,” that jailing individuals for failing
to pay legal fees actually places the financial burden
on the state, wasting taxpayer money and resources to
keep those individuals in jail or on public welfare as
they struggle to pay their overwhelming debts.

Moreover, these and other penalties creates obstacles
for those re-entering society after completing their
criminal sentence; the Brennan Center report, “Criminal
Justice Debt: A Barrier to Reentry,” notes that eight of
the 15 states studied suspend driving privileges of
individuals who miss debt payments, while seven states
require them to complete their full payments before
regaining eligibility to vote. Such unnecessary setbacks
often pave the way for those on probation to return to
jail through no fault of their own.

“We are undermining the integrity of our criminal
justice system and creating a two-tiered system of
justice in which the poorest among us are punished more
harshly than those with means, at a great cost to
taxpayers,” said ACLU deputy legal director Vanita

Imprisoning probationers for failing to pay court debts
was found unconstitutional in 1980, when Georgia
resident Danny Bearden was sent to prison for two years
when he could not pay $550 in legal fees, despite his
efforts. In Bearden v. Georgia, the Supreme Court ruled
that such practices violated the Equal Protection Clause
of the 14th Amendment – but states throughout the
country have begun openly disregarding these principles
in their efforts to balance their budgets.

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The ACLU report highlights a few exemplary cases.
Gregory White, a homeless man in Louisiana, was arrested
for stealing $39 worth of food from a grocery store and
assigned $339 in legal fees; when he was jailed for
being unable to pay, White spent 198 days in jail at a
cost of $3,5000 to the city.

Georgia resident Ora Lee Hurley owed $705 in fines from
a 1990 drug possession conviction and remained in jail
for eight months for failing to pay.

Kawana Young, a 25-year-old single mother in Michigan,
was told after the fact that her community service hours
would not satisfy her debts because she had volunteered
with a nonprofit organization. Young has since been
jailed five times for being unable to pay her fees.

And Percy Dear, a New Orleans resident who suffers from
epilepsy, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, was
arrested for begging in 2007. After pleading guilty,
Dear was sentenced with either paying an immediate fine
of $200 or spending 20 days in jail. Dear was unable to
pay his fine at once and was incarcerated. These
particular “fine or time” sentences are a glaring
example of methods that plainly punish indigent cases
while allowing wealthy individuals to go free on the
same charges.

Judge Calvin Johnson, who served for 17 years in the
Criminal District Court or Orleans Parish, said that
regularly sentencing defendants in a “fine or time”
method could have cost the city more than it collected.
“30 days or $100 – that was something I heard every
day,” said Johnson in the ACLU report. “Now, how can you
describe a system where the city pays $23 a day to the
Sheriff to house someone in jail for 30 days to collect
$100 as anything other than crazy?”

“People are emerging from the criminal justice process
with significant debts that they cannot hope to repay,”
said Brennan Center Deputy Director Rebekah Diller. “As
a result, these fees are creating new paths back to
prison for those unable to pay.”

Former Montgomery County, Ohio, public defender Glen H.
Dewar is profiled in the ACLU report for his efforts in
eliminating the state’s debtors’ prisons. Dewar stated
in the report, “My estimate is that 20 to 25 percent of
all local incarcerations statewide are for fines and
costs, while about 50 percent of arrests are for fines
and costs … [until 2000], none of the persons arrested
for nonpayment of fines and costs appeared on any court
docket. Nor were they ever scheduled to appear at any
particular time before any particular judge or
magistrate.” Before county jail records were
computerized, Dewar said, “the scope of the problem, in
terms of both numbers of arrests and days in jail,
remained hidden … the county also expanded jail space
at a cost of millions, unaware of the fact that it was
not for criminals but debtors.”

As noted in the Brennan Center report, several states
have also started to utilize practices that violate the
Sixth Amendment, which guarantees defendants a right to
counsel. Florida, North Carolina and Virginia have all
implemented mandatory defender fees and provide no
opportunity to waive them for indigent cases.

According to the report, “defender fees often discourage
individuals from exercising their constitutional right
to an attorney – leading to wrongful convictions, over-
incarceration and significant burdens on the operation
of courts. In Michigan, for example, the National Legal
Aid and Defender Association found that the threat of
paying the full cost of assigned counsel resulted in
misdemeanor defendants systematically waiving their
right to counsel – at a rate of 95 percent in one
county.” In Virginia, defendants often face up to $1,235
per count for some felonies.

The Brennan Center recommends that states eliminate
public defender fees and offer community service
programs that build job skills, among other state and
local policy reforms; the ACLU similarly recommends that
a judicial assessment of a convicted defendant’s ability
to pay fines must be comprehensive.


Point of Fact: In the metro area in which the Dissenting Democrat resides, one Sheriff has ordered the discontinuance of hot meals for prisoners decreeing that cold bologna sandwiches provide sufficient nutrition for the incarcerated. Not occasionally for lunch but for daily consumption at every meal. Doesn’t the prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishments” hold anymore?


One response to “Imprisoned for Debt

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