Two reports published by NYU's Brennan Center for Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reveal a rising trend of patently unconstitutional practices in cash-strapped states, where a growing number of impoverished people are jailed for being unable to pay their legal fees - including charges for use of public defenders, a guaranteed right in the United States. The resurgence of these draconian "debtors' prisons" has been documented in at least 13 of the 15 states with the largest prison populations in the country, including California, Arizona, Michigan and Alabama.
"Incarcerating people simply because they cannot afford to pay their legal debts is not only unconstitutional but also has a devastating impact upon men and women whose only crime is that they are poor," said ACLU senior staff attorney Eric Balaban.
Increasingly, being poor is treated as a crime:
Kawana Young, a 25-year-old single mother in Michigan, was told after the fact that her community service hours would not satisfy her debts because she had volunteered with a nonprofit organization. Young has since been jailed five times for being unable to pay her fees.
How does that help pay the fines? Am I missing something here?
Nope, I guess not:
Judge Calvin Johnson, who served for 17 years in the Criminal District Court or Orleans Parish, said that regularly sentencing defendants in a "fine or time" method could have cost the city more than it collected. "30 days or $100 - that was something I heard every day," said Johnson in the ACLU report. "Now, how can you describe a system where the city pays $23 a day to the Sheriff to house someone in jail for 30 days to collect $100 as anything other than crazy?"
These are undoubtedly some of the same states that are hurting for revenue. As I've said before - I did fail remedial math in high school - but as bad as I am at math, even I can see that increasing the number of people in prison is not a way to save on the state budget.
cross-posted at MainSt/workingamerica.org