ACLU Takes On Illegal Debtors’ Prison Systems

Debtors' Prison200 years ago, if a person could not afford to pay his fine he was thrown in jail. Reforms have since banished the oxymoronic practice – How is a person who can’t afford to pay his fine going to be able to attain the required fine amount if he’s in prison – but according to the American Civil Liberties Union, similar “debtors’ prisons” are springing up across the United States.

Those who oppose the debtors’ prisons say that they disproportionately jail poor individuals, and they actually cost the local governments more money than they bring in. The ACLU cited a few instances where “sending a message” appeared to be more important than carefully allocating taxpayer dollars:

  • In Mecklenburg County, N.C., they collected $33,476 from debtors in 2009, but spent $40,000 jailing nearly 250 debtors – A net loss of $6,524.
  • An unnamed jail spent more than $70,000 in costs to incarcerate 154 debtors over a five-month period in 2012, and only collected $40,000 in overdue fines during that same period.
  • In Wheatridge and Northglenn counties in Colorado, debtors were forced to spend one day in jail for every $50 they owed, and another county instituted a mandatory 10 days in jail for debtors.
  • In Huron County, Ohio, 20 percent of the arrests in 2012 were for failure to pay fines. The ACLU reports that it costs upwards of $400 to execute a search warrant in Ohio and $65 a night to jail a person.

“It’s a waste of taxpayer resources, and it undermines the integrity of the justice system,” said Carl Takei, staff attorney for the ACLU’s National Prison Project. “The problem is it’s not actually much of a money-making proposition….to throw people in jail for fines and fee when they can’t afford it. If counties weren’t spending the money jailing people for not paying debts, they could be spending the money in other ways.”

While most will argue that it’s important we hold individuals accountable for their actions and the subsequent consequences, it’s also less than ideal to have the burden fall to the law-abiding taxpayers.

Attorney Mel Welch noted that there are systems in place during sentencing to try to avoid burdening a person with mountains of debt, but many still slip through the cracks.

“The courts are required to inquire and consider if a person would benefit from an alternate form of payment, like community service,” said Welch. “Similar to credit card accounts, a small debt can spiral out of control with continual fines and late payments fees. It’s often the small fines that snowball out of control because a person simply doesn’t have the means to pay off the debt.”

Related source: Fox News

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Melvin Welch

Criminal Trial Lawyer at Appelman Law Firm
Mel is a criminal trial and appeals attorney, and the newest addition to the Appelman Law Firm team. Before joining the firm, Mel was an Assistant County Attorney for Hennepin County where he prosecuted narcotic, gun, and violent crimes. Prior to being a prosecutor, Mel was a criminal appeals attorney.
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