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Debtor's prisons entrench poverty

Debtor's prisons entrench poverty

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The National Association for Public Defense is monitoring the efforts that the Missouri Supreme Court will take to end the unconstitutional practice of jailing poor people for failing to pay court-ordered fees and fines. Last month, NAPD sent a letter outlining the legal and practical consequences of this practice, and offering to facilitate assistance from jurisdictions throughout the country that have addressed these unfair policies.

Not only is incarcerating the poor for an inability to pay unconstitutional, the practice is counterproductive to the purpose of trying to collect fines. Imposing jail for people unable to pay criminal justice fines and fees serves to entrench poverty because community members lose jobs, housing, and any financial stability they had once they are sent to jail. Further, the practice disenfranchises people in a way that undermines public safety and destroys public confidence in the justice system — clearly an open wound in the Ferguson community.

New York Times coverage detailed the shortsightedness of this practice in its Sept. 12 article on mistrust in Ferguson: “Mr. Grover Clemons got a ticket for an expired license plate, but he showed up in court with $80, not $100, so a warrant was issued. ‘I did not miss my court date,’ Mr. Clemons said. ‘I was $20 short.’ ”

The Ferguson City Council recently made plans to eliminate some of the most punitive fees that citizens had been required to pay, including the $125 failure-to-appear fee and the $50 fee to cancel a warrant, and we are encouraged by their efforts to end these practices. For many, the cumulative effect of the seemingly endless fees has resulted in a jail sentence.

Missouri is not alone in jailing poor people for failure to pay, but other states have taken action when the issue was brought to the forefront. The Supreme Court of Ohio issued a “bench card” this year to all the state’s judges detailing the necessary steps judges must take to guarantee its citizens due process and a determination of the ability to pay.

Timothy Young, Ohio state public defender and NAPD Steering Committee chairman, states “Ohio, like many states, had judges that used jails as collection tools, wasting thousands of taxpayer dollars by illegally jailing people to collect a few dollars. The Ohio Supreme Court issued directives to every judge in Ohio making clear that debtor’s prison is not allowed, including a citation to a case of a judge who was publicly reprimanded for engaging in such a practice.

“After the issuance of the bench card, the practice is now only an isolated problem in a few places where judges still believe that the public is somehow safer by jailing someone over $25. Jails, in Ohio and everywhere, are extremely expensive and should be used for public safety, not to collect money.”

In Colorado, it wasn’t the judiciary who responded to remedy the unconstitutional practice that was rampant in the state. Rather, state policymakers saw the need to pass new legislation codifying the requirements any judge or magistrate must follow before any person could be jailed for failing to pay a fine or fee. Once more, there was an emphasis on alternatives to jail.

Prior to the new law, courts sentenced poor people to jail at a cost of $70 per day to “work off” the fee and the debt was considered collected once the time had been served. In just one county, that amounted to a cost of $70,000 per year to taxpayers where poor people were jailed when they could not pay their fees and fines.

A judicial system that prides itself on justice for all cannot maintain a structure in which people with means pay their fines and move on with their lives, while the poor go to jail. Addressing unfairness that occurs on a routine basis in the judicial system is not only an obligation of the courts, but is necessary to show the community that fairness can and will be restored for the citizens it serves.

We hope that Missouri works with its institutional partners and its local community to aggressively pursue strategies to bring the criminal justice system into compliance with the law. We are confident that this effort will make the system in Missouri more cost-effective and begin to restore the public trust that is prerequisite to both safe streets and strong communities.

Janene K. McCabe is an NAPD member and director of technical litigation for the Colorado State Public Defender.

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