9/30/10 at 2:30 PM
Inmate isn’t a money-making profession, which helps explain why states outlawed debtors’ prisons in the 1830s. More recently, the Supreme Court added protections for the destitute, ruling that a judge can’t revoke probation for or heap prison time on an inmate merely because he can’t afford fines or court fees. But while poverty is no longer a crime, at least not officially, two new studies suggest that the practice of locking up debtors is becoming more common. In separate efforts, the American Civil Liberties Union and Brennan Center for Justice at New York University spent a year observing court cases and interviewing hundreds of defenders, prosecutors, and the accused. The results, copies of which were released early to NEWSWEEK, show a troubling pattern of incarceration in at least 16 states, where even minor, nonviolent offenses such as speeding and loitering result in prison time for the poor.