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How Courts Punish People for their Poverty


Think debtors prisons no longer exist? Think again.

One way that court systems commonly raise revenue is to impose fees and fines on those who commit minor offenses. For many people, these expenses can pile up, driving them into poverty. Often, people who fail to pay their fees are jailed illegally by local and state governments, further perpetuating the cycle of poverty when these people lose their jobs and homes.

This is a huge problem in many U.S. cities, particularly Ferguson, Missouri. Last month, the town agreed to a federal plan to eliminate unconstitutional and racist practices within its courts and local police force. Other local and state governments should be aware that they, too, might be held accountable for violating the rights of citizens over nonpayment issues.

According to the Justice Department, local and state courts are obligated to inquire about a person’s ability to pay court fees and fines before they can be incarcerated for failure to pay. On more than one occasion, the Supreme Court has ruled that jailing a person because they are unable to pay a fine is a violation of equal protection under the 14th Amendment, as it is tantamount to punishing a person for his or her poverty. Courts are required by law to consider alternatives to prison for the indigent. Alternatives may include requiring the defendant to attend community classes or public safety classes, or to require community service.

Furthermore, courts are forbidden to deny defendants court dates until their fines are paid. According to the Justice Department, this amounts to denying people their day in court that they are guaranteed under the Constitution. The Justice Department has also made it clear that courts who hire unscrupulous firms to collect unpaid fines and fees can be held accountable for constitutional violations and abuses committed by a firm.

The reform plan in Ferguson is a reminder of how far local and state courts have strayed from the law and provides a focused plan to restore justice to those who need it most.

Source: New York Times