When Americans hear the term “debtor’s prison,” they think of some far-off country in Africa or South America. Many don’t look at their own judicial system to make the connection of the person’s socio-economic status as the almost predetermined outcome of jail.
It is a well-settled matter, slavery has been outlawed in the United States for over 150 years. That was codified in a battle in Adams County, Pennsylvania, where one of the nation’s most well-known battles took place. Indentured servitude, which is also known as debtor’s prison, has been outlawed in the United States since 1833.
Debtor prisons are not isolated incidents in the United States and occurred in almost every state. They have become ingrained into our society for being tough on crime, imprisoning people for petty crimes of that range from unregistered cars in their driveways to not having curtains on the front window.
Those who are unable to pay their fines end up with a warrant for their arrest and spend up to 30 days in jail. That jail sentence doesn’t do away with their fine, it becomes a system of enforcing the fines. A cycle that keeps residents in debt, and keeping them in poverty.
These debtor prisons are run by the cities, police departments and the judicial system. When for-profit corporations run the correctional institutes and the judicial system is indifferent to the citizens it is inevitable for the system to run afoul. In true capitalistic ideals, corporations seek to increase their revenue by the only means possible, even at the cost of people’s livelihoods.
In Ferguson, Missouri after the fallout from rioting, after the death of Michael Brown, the Department of Justice delivered a scathing report to the city. In the letter, the Justice Department itemized the transgressions, including a debtor’s prison, the city and its police department inflicted on its own citizens.
There has been much debate regarding Ferguson, with many people believing the rioting was a result of Brown’s death. However, in reading the Department of Justice report you can see the systematic oppression of the entire community. The rioting was born of the frustration of the continual oppression and judicial system born of revenue generation.
In the report the DOJ released findings in two civil rights investigations which included emails between mayor and the Chief of Police, who were discussing how to increase the revenue by ticketing for minor offenses.
A woman with four children, who had just moved to Ferguson, was unable to afford to register the vehicle parked in her driveway. Code enforcement then ticketed the woman, who could not afford to pay the fine. The fine grew from $50 to over $400 in unpaid fines, and finally an arrest warrant was issued for her.
In another egregious incident that happened in Philadelphia, two judges were sentenced for their part in a scheme known as “Cash for Kids”. Judges Mark Ciavarella Jr. and Michael Conahan took millions in bribes from Robert Mericle, the owner of private juvenile prison companies, to send children to prison for petty crimes.
In Alabama many residents live in fear of being arrested for unpaid fines. Many of the citations are from minor incidents such as seatbelt violations for as little as $40. When residents do face a judge, months after the citation the fines have grown to $300 or $400 and the defendants are usually given probation and forced to pay for their probation on top of their fine. The probation itself can cost as much as $40 per month, the same amount they could not pay in the first place. The amounts paid go to the probation company before paying down the fine, in turn adding more debt and a longer term of probation. Many residents have been on probation for well over 6 months for trivial infractions, with some residents forced to stay on probation for as many as two years.
In 2013, the Ohio ACLU issued a report on how many municipal courts were sending indigent people to jail for trivial fines. The report grabbed the attention of the Ohio Supreme Court who gave explicit instructions to lower courts on alternative options available to the court. The money-grabbing practice documented by the ACLU has been found in Michigan, Washington and other states.
The Department of Justice warns courts about jailing indigent people for inability to pay, instructing them to cease the cycle of debt that sends low income suspects to jail over their inability to pay fines. The DOJ directive instructed judges to take into account the ability to pay just as the ACLU pushed for in Ohio.
Cities throughout the country have entered consent decrees with the DOJ, pledging to follow a strict set of rules to prevent a systematic pattern of racial profiling and policing for money. Some of the cities who have entered consent decrees include Miami, Cleveland, Los Angeles, and a multitude of other major cities.
Though many large cities have entered consent decrees, many small towns and cities throughout the country are guilty of the same practice of policing for money, as we’ve seen in South Charleston, New York or Ferguson in the last few years.
A consent decree is an agreement without admitting guilty in the legal world. The number of consent degrees municipalities have entered into with the DOJ, just in the past decade, is staggering. While debtor’s prisons are not limited to minority communities, the commonality is the economically disadvantaged demographics it encompasses, going almost hand in hand.
When the DOJ finally steps in to review a city’s policing and issues a consent decree, it has become blatant and without regard to the citizens within the community. Cities continue to negotiate the terms of the decrees, but in the end they are powerless to do anything but ask for concessions. One of the more famous consent decrees was issued to the Los Angeles Police Department in 2000 after the Rodney King incident. Under the decree, the Justice Department reviewed the LAPD’s use of force and citizen complaints for more than ten years.
The list of more than 20 cities that have entered into consent decrees with the DOJ are growing almost daily. These police forces are responsible for policing nearly two percent of the U.S. population.
- Newark, NJ – (280,579)
- Ferguson, MO – (21,086)
- Miami, FL – (430,332)
- Cleveland, OH – (389,521)
- Baltimore, MD – (622,793)
- New Orleans, LA (384,320)
These decrees are not a result of physical abuses inflicted on citizens, but also cities like Ferguson that have created debtor’s prisons. In the end, decrees have never resulted in any further punishment for policies or procedures within a police department, even after highly volatile incidents.
It has become the de facto standard to not punish cities or departments that continue to police for profit or criminally violate a citizen’s rights.
Only under the threat of a consent decree did Ferguson and the judges within the town concede to abolish the practice they had seen as a revenue generator and profit center. It took Ferguson more than five months after the consent decree to pledge an end to the cycle of fines and probation.
Many of those in debt for petty crimes such as seat-belt violations are thrown deeper into debt without any means to break the cycle. This cycle of tacked-on probation fees almost guarantee a citizen running afoul with the law again.
The time has come to end the process of hiring outside corporations to manage probation and other court related services at a cost. Probation has become a tool for enslavement in many poverty-stricken neighborhoods.
Local and state governments must stop using law enforcement to generate revenue at the expense of people’s lives.