Modern Day Debtors Prisons

When people hear the phrase “debtors’ prison” images of an archaic and unjust system from the 1800’s when individuals were jailed for their inability to pay debts comes to mind. The idea of debtors’ prison fell out of favor in the late 1800’s resulting in them being closed. However, current trends in the criminal justice system have resulted in what many are labeling as modern day debtors’ prisons. The result of ever increasing financial obligations for individuals convicted of crimes, and the potential for imprisonment for failure to pay those fines, has resulted in a system that punishes individuals not solely on the basis of their alleged conduct but also on their financial circumstances.

One of the biggest issues with the current state of the criminal justice system is the exorbitant monetary penalties resulting from a criminal conviction. The various fines, fees, costs, and other monetary obligations can add up quickly. For example, prosecutors will often ask a judge to have the defendant reimburse the state for its filing fee (the cost to file the criminal charges against the defendant). This fee may be as little as $250 in King County District Court but can be over $300 in certain municipalities. Judges can also add on a fee for the benefit of a public defender, conviction fee, and additional fines as part of the sentence. The monetary penalties for a misdemeanor case can quickly add up to well over $1,000.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and Columbia Legal Services recently released a report exploring modern day debtors’ prisons in Washington. The report investigated four counties in Washington State to determine the effects of legal financial obligations on Washington defendants. The study had some disturbing findings. For example, 20% of individuals booked into county jail because of a failure to pay legal financial obligations. The investigation further found that many courts throughout the state do not take into account an individual’s ability to pay their legal financial obligations before jailing them for failure to pay. A full version of the report can be viewed here.

The monetary penalties become even greater for individuals who have additional court ordered requirements such as anger management classes, drug/alcohol treatment, or probation. These additional requirements, which are often a part of a defendant’s sentence, can add up to several hundred if not thousands of dollars. Failure to pay for court ordered classes, treatment, or probation will often result in a defendant being removed from a program they are required to be in as a part of their sentence. The result of this “non-compliance” with their sentence ultimately means they will end up back in court facing additional sanctions.

The monetary obligations that come with a criminal conviction is further polarizing the treatment of people from different socioeconomic backgrounds in the criminal justice system. The most obvious example is individuals who have no financial constraints and are able to readily pay all of the monetary assessments and expensive requirements the court imposes. For those individuals, their only concern is maintaining compliance and not whether or no they will be able to pay for the cost of complying with the courts orders. But the disparate impact can also be seen in the ability of defendants to use alternatives for reducing their fees such as court approved work crew or volunteering in the community. For many defendant – such as those already working multiple jobs, with a disability, or having a combination of characteristics that makes them undesirable to nonprofits – these alternative means to resolve some if not all of their financial obligations are simply unavailable.

What is perhaps most disturbing are the potential results of failure to pay court ordered financial obligations or comply with court ordered programs even if failure is based purely on an inability to pay. These individuals are typically deemed as being “out of compliance” with the terms of their criminal sentence and the result is usually a court hearing to determine what sanctions the court will impose. Again, for individuals who are paid hourly, missing another day of work is in itself a huge monetary penalty. The employment consequences aside, when a defendant is brought in for a review hearing, the court will typically decide if additional sanctions – including more fines – are warranted. There has been an alarming trend in some courts to impose jail or work crew for individuals who have not been able to pay their fines. The result is poor people being jailed or forced to work because of their lack of income.

While in theory the days of formal debtors’ prisons have passed, the reality is modern day debtors prisons are ever present. Whether it be jail or work crew, the imposition of sanctions on individuals who have no means to pay financial obligations to the courts is a state sanctioned method of penalizing people for having limited resources.

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