Our War on the Poor

On March 9th, the Justice Department made a statement calling for state court systems to abstain from jailing poor defendants who fail to pay fines or legal fees.

That’s March 9, 2016, by the way. Yes, it actually took that long for the Justice Department to vocalize the obviously inhumane and unfair treatment of jailing the poor for being poor.

The reason why this conversation is finally happening is because of the abundant practice in our country of courts acting as debt collectors rather than justice administrators. For years, courts have been increasing and doubling down on debt collection as many state budgets have been coming up short on necessary funds.

According to a report, published in 2012 by the Brennan Center for Justice, Florida has added more than 20 new fees to their criminal justice system since 1996. In 2009, North Carolina implemented late fees for failure to pay fines, while simultaneously adding a surcharge for people paying fees on a payment plan. Unfortunately, this concept of charging extra fees for enrolling in payment plans is not new. At least nine states have implemented this. States are actually charging poor people additional fees for attempting to make their payments more managable and less burdensome. Seems a little contradictory, no?

The same report by the Brennan Center estimates that about 60% of former inmates are unemployed one year after release. Criminal debt collectors hardly consider this in their efforts to collect fees and fines. It is a counter-productive cycle that perpetuates the already cyclic nature of incarceration and poverty. We fine the unemployed former inmate for legal fees that we know he or she can’t pay, causing the fees to then double which ultimately results in the former inmate being forced back through a broken criminal justice system where it will happen all over again. It is absurd, inhumane, and not financially viable way to balance a state’s fiscal budget. Not to mention it is the tax payer’s money that continuously pays to keep these impoverished people behind bars.

There are plenty of prisoners in Pennsylvania who are eligible for release, but are kept behind bars because they are unable to pay fees, even ones which are often as little as $60, while the daily cost of continued confinement paid by taxpayers is $100. The report cited an excellent example of how this process actually costs our county money:

“In 2009, Mecklenburg County, North Carolina arrested 564 people because they fell behind on debt; the County jailed 246 debtors who did not pay for an average of 4 days. The county collected $33,476 while the jail term itself cost $40,000 — a loss for the county of $6,524.”

More important than the costs of debt collecting is the moral problem. It is utterly inhumane to jail the poor for being poor, who only got themselves in a situation where you can be jailed for being poor, BY BEING POOR.

For decades our criminal justice system has been ignoring white collar crime while cracking down on the crimes committed by poor people. When an individual is incarcerated, their family is likely to suffer financially as they likely will lose one source of income. This alone is a financial strain on families, but this also results in the inability to pay things such as child support or alimony. When that family member is released from jail and cannot pay their legal fees, they are put on probation. People on probation lose their eligibility for public benefits such as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, low income housing assistance, and supplemental security income. Not to mention that it is nearly impossible to find employment after being incarcerated.

An entire family suffers under this model of outrageously fining and the compounding of fees upon those who can't afford to pay them. To add insult to injury, we then make them ineligible for essentailly all of the programs in our social safety net that were implemented to help lift them out of povery. This extreme form of taxation sentences people to a life of extreme poverty and ultimately encourages more crime, as they find it more and more necessary to commit them just to survive. There is no respect for the law when the law does not respect you. This not a model for justice. This a model that punishes the poor for being poor and rewards the private prison industry for continuously shuffling people in and out of for-profit jails whil we hand large checks to those prison's CEOs.

Debtor’s prisons are more than immoral, they are unconstitutional. The constitution grants each and every person of the United States the right to counsel. By implementing public defender fees, our right to counsel is undermined because it acts as an incentive to forgo the opportunity to have adequate representation. This ultimately undermines our right to due process which is the foundation for our criminal justice system. Apparently, you are only innocent until proven guilty if you can afford it. People are literally in jail absorbing taxpayer money because they committed the crime of not being able to afford a lawyer.

Instead of waging a war on poverty, we have declared a war on drugs, got “tough” on crime, created for-profit prisons and enforced and condoned mass incarceration. As a result, we waged a war on the most vulnerable citizens in our country. The richest nation in the history of the world needs to provide more dignity to its people. There is no such thing as moral absolutism. Even people who commit crimes are innately and inherently good human beings. It is time we started treating our people as such.