Short on Cash, “Poor Americans Ending Up in Modern-Day Debtors’ Prison” Over Traffic Fines

For ages, those who were too poverty-stricken to pay judgments and other outstanding debts were locked up, and forced to work it off under prison labor, along with the cost of incarceration.

But it fell out of fashion, and became an unlawful and unconstitutional form of punishment in the U.S. back in the 1830s, as well as in most other countries. The 14th Amendment strengthened equal protection under law, that is until recent decades. With new found economic pressures and plenty of new fines and offenses, debtors’ prisons are back.

And it is a harsh reality for thousands of struggling Americans. Many more could join them if they aren’t careful.

CBS Money Watch carried another in depth report on the growing trend of debtors’ prisons, a de facto result of thousands of Americans who are too poor to pay for heavy fines levied by private institutions contracted by municipal governments, or otherwise unable to keep up with the multiple demands of violations for traffic and other offenses:
For teenager Kevin Thompson, a traffic ticket ended up costing him not only his driver’s license, but also his freedom.

In his account of the experience, Thompson says he was ordered to pay $810 in fines by Georgia’s DeKalb Recorders Court, an amount that was out of reach for the low-income auto shop and tow truck worker. Instead of working with Thompson to find another way to pay, such as through community service, the court handed off Thompson to a for-profit probation company called Judicial Correction Services (JCS). JCS told Thompson he had 30 days to pay the fine, but also gave him erroneous legal information, such as overestimating the cost of a public defender.

Thompson notes that the court later took up a JCS officer’s recommendation to incarcerate him, resulting in a five-day stint in jail for failing to pay the fine.

Thompson, whose case was represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, is just one of the poor Americans ending up in a modern-day version of the debtors’ prison, an antiquated punishment that was eliminated by the U.S. in the 1830s.  Continue reading

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