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.
The reason, according to the reports, is that courts indiscriminately slap fines on impoverished defendants, triggering an endless cycle of legal jeopardy. Failure to pay a ticket, for example, results in an arrest warrant, and a second failure to pay can lead to prison. The crime is coded as “contempt” for court or “failure to appear,” making it hard to determine the total number of poverty-related sentences. But during the summer of 2009 in New Orleans Municipal Court, which the ACLU says is particularly hard-nosed, the group saw 33 cases of indigent defendants who had missed earlier court dates. Twenty-one ended up in jail for 60 days; the others paid their debts on the spot. The Brennan Center observed a similar ratio in Charlotte, N.C., last year, where about 250 defendants served four-day sentences for failure to pay. An uptick in laws that disproportionately affect the poor and the sheer complications of poverty (inflexible work schedules, unreliable transportation) only add to the number of cases.
But what’s driving the sentences, at least in part, isn’t morality so much as economics. In recent years, state funding has slowed for virtually every court in the country, making fines an essential means of keeping the gavel clapping. In a memo obtained by the ACLU, the Michigan courts administrator is brutally clear, reminding judges of “tough economic times” and urging a “culture shift” toward pay-or-prison collection tactics. In New Orleans, which relies on fee collection for as much as 40 percent of its budget, Judge Paul Sens denies running a debtors’ prison, saying that every defendant gets the option of community service, at least at first. But, he tells NEWSWEEK, overrelying on court fees “causes a problem,” appearing to force judges to take a harder line than they might otherwise. That’s one thing all parties agree on: for Lady Justice to be blind, she first needs enough money to be comfortable.