Economy

Debtors’ Prisons Are Back. This Is The Fight To Get Rid Of Them.

CREDIT: Flickr/Paul Sableman

Amanda Underwood has missed two of her children’s birthdays sitting in jail because she didn’t have a couple of hundred dollars on hand.

She’s now been summoned to court in Alexander City, Alabama twice for owing fines related to driving violations. “You go up and stand in front of the judge, he says who wants to plead guilty, you plead guilty,” she explained. “If you have the money you’re good to go, and if you don’t you go to jail.” There is no discussion of lawyers or payment plans.

The first time she went to court it was her son’s second birthday. She owed a couple hundred dollars for a suspended license thanks to traffic tickets. But she didn’t have that money; she didn’t have a job and lived on a fixed income. So she was thrown in jail for a couple of hours until she was able to get someone to loan her the money she needed.

The next time she went to court she wasn’t as lucky. Again there to pay a fine of a couple of hundred dollars, she still didn’t have that kind of money. She ended up being jailed for a couple of days while she was able to earn enough money from the jail to pay off the fine: $40 a day in return for cleaning and doing laundry.

Underwood is due back in court October 1st for another fine she can’t pay. But now she’s a plaintiff in a lawsuit against her city. Earlier this month, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) filed a federal lawsuit against Alexander City for operating what it calls “modern-day debtors prisons.” According to the lawsuit, anyone who goes to court and can’t pay the fines is brought to a back room, asked by police if they can pay or have someone immediately bring the money, and are arrested and jailed if they can’t pay, even if they have partial payment. There is no assessment of their ability to pay, any offer of a lawyer, or any ability to work out a payment plan or do community service instead. Then people either sit out their debts at $20 off their debt a day or $40 if they, like Underwood, do jobs within the jail.

The system is a longstanding way the city has dealt with fines and fees. “It’s been happening for as long as many people can remember, at least a decade, possibly longer,” said SPLC staff attorney Sara Zampierin. “We’ve seen records that show probably over 200 people have suffered from this practice in Alexander City in the last two years.”

In a town where nearly 30 percent of the residents live below the poverty line, it can create severe hardship. D’Angelo Foster, another plaintiff, was jailed for 35 days for owing $1,700, a sum he didn’t have. He ended up losing his job in that period — as well as all the promotions he had received there — and had to start over in a new job at minimum wage. He also fell behind on his child support payments. “He just didn’t have $1,700 on hand that day,” Zampierin said. “If he did, he could have avoided jail.”

“The debtors’ prison practice…is just creating a two-tiered system of justice where those who can’t pay are sent to jail, and those who can pay avoid jail and avoid these harsh consequences,” she said.

SPLC argues these practices violates residents’ 14th Amendment right to due process and equal protection under the law. It also says the warrantless arrests at the courthouse of those who can’t pay violate Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures, and the failure to provide them with lawyers violates the Sixth Amendment right to counsel. Meanwhile, previous Supreme Court cases in the 70s and 80s found that jailing people because they can’t pay a debt without assessing their ability to pay violates the Constitution. And debtors’ prisons, of course, were abolished in the United States in the 1800s.

Yet these practices aren’t isolated to one Alabama town. Similar lawsuits were filed in Montgomery, where poor people who couldn’t pay their fines were jailed but could pay debts off faster by doing jobs around the jail like cleaning feces and blood off of the floor. The suits led to the city ending the practice and reforming their policies. But more debtors prisons are likely thriving on a much wider scale across the country.

“Caging people when they’re too poor to afford to pay court debt…is ubiquitous, it’s happening in all 50 states,” said Alec Karakatsanis, co-founder of Equal Justice Under the Law, which brought a case against Montgomery. There is no hard and fast data on how many towns engage in these practices, nor how many people are jailed on any given day. “But I go around the country…and see it all over,” he noted.

One motivating factor is that municipal courts have become a cash cow in terms of government revenue. “It’s actually very lucrative for cities to do this,” Karakatsanis said. “These policies allow cities to take advantage of the fact that they also control the police force and jails and to extort money out of people.”

His group just filed a lawsuit last week against the New Orleans criminal district court for running a debtors’ prison in which fees are imposed without hearings about people’s ability to pay, despite the fact that 80 percent of defendants qualify as indigent, and people are indefinitely jailed if they fall behind on payments. The money is then used to fund the judges, the prosecutors, and the public defenders, creating potential conflicts of interest and rendering the court system dependent on higher and more frequent fines and fees assessed against defendants. One plaintiff says he was kept in jail for weeks for unpaid debts even though he could have paid had he been allowed to earn the money at his job. Another was told by a collections officer to pay double every time a payment was late.

“These are supposed to be places you can go to seek justice, and instead they’re cash cows,” Karakatsanis said.

The tide may be slowly turning, however. Beyond the recent suits, Karakatsanis also filed lawsuits against Ferguson and Jennings in Missouri in February in partnership with ArchCity Defenders. “For many years, these practices festered and became pervasive without anyone doing litigation,” he said. “Over the past year and a half or so, we’ve seen a growing effort among nonprofit organizations and private lawyers to start challenging these systems.” If those cases end up in successful resolutions, as many have so far, they could inspire others. A growing national conversation about the criminal justice system, meanwhile, may spur even more attention and action.

The suit SPLC brought against Alexander City has already had an impact. When Amanda Underwood goes back to court next month, it’s not likely she’ll end up in jail again. SPLC has worked out a deal with the city that it won’t incarcerate anyone for nonpayment until either there is a court ruling on its suit or until December 31st, whichever comes first.

That would be a relief for Underwood. “I don’t want to go back to jail,” she said.