Traffic Ticket, Go to Jail? The Return of Debtor Prison (Hard
Editor's note: America has a long history of treating the poor like criminals, from legislation banning the transportation of poor people across state lines to anti-vagrancy laws that could land you in jail if you didn't have a job or a home. We've come to rely on the criminal justice system to deal with the poor, even as more and more Americans fall into poverty. The following is part of a series that looks at the diverse ways poverty is criminalized in America, such as laws targeting the homeless, the surveillance of welfare recipients, the re-emergence of debtor's prisons, and extreme policing tactics like stop-and-frisk.
February 12, 2013 "Alternet" -- Kawana Young, a single mother of two kids, was arrested in Michigan after failing to pay money she owed as a result of minor traffic offenses. She was recently laid off from her job, and could not pay the fees she owed because she couldn’t find another source of employment. So a judge sentenced her to three days in jail. In addition, Young was charged additional fees for being booked and for room and board for a place she did not want to be. In total, she has been jailed five times for being unable to pay her debts.
make sense to jail people when they can’t pay
because they definitely can’t pay while they’re in
jail,” said Young.
practice of throwing people into jail got more
attention last year due to a New York Times
report examining “the mushrooming of fines and
fees levied by money-starved towns across the
country and the for-profit businesses that
administer the system,” with the result being
“growing numbers of poor people...ending up
jailed and in debt for minor infractions.”
The phenomenon of debtor prison creates a two-tiered justice system. For poor people unable to pay up money they owe from traffic infractions or other debts, jail becomes home for longer.
For the rich, it’s a different story. “Pay-or-stay sentences are no choice for the poor,” the ACLU’s Michael Steinberg told The Detroit News “They translate to rich people writing a check and going home and poor people going to jail. It's a modern-day debtor prison. This two-tiered system of justice is shameful, it's a waste of resources, it is unconstitutional, and it must be changed.”
Additionally, the two-tiered justice system means that poor people often have to pay even more than their initial fees and fines, due to additional booking and jail fees. This leads to a toxic cycle where poor people are arrested for fees they can’t pay and are then walloped with even more financial obligations. And going to jail disrupts life for these poor people, making it even more difficult to find a job that would help them pay off their debt.
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