‘Cash Register Justice’ and Police Brutality
You want criminal justice reform? Resist the resurgence of debtors’ prisons.
As the rallies and protests across the country grow more introspective, we Americans are truly experiencing a liberal moment…one in which the most unlikeliest of people are willing to relinquish intolerant impulses and seek remedy for a criminal justice system that has quite obviously stacked the deck against poor folks and people of color.
This article focuses on the resurgence of debtors’ prisons…still unconstitutional!… and their impact on low-to-moderate income people. I dare not to draw a direct link between debtors’ prison and the kind of police brutality we painfully observed these last few weeks. But bear with me while I cull an example that will dramatize the connection.
From the pages of Mother Jones magazine, an article reports on a police shooting in South Carolina. The victim was stopped for a busted taillight, the two had an “amiable” conversation and then, all of a sudden, the victim turned around to run away. He was shot by the officer. Putting aside the fact that the cop had other options rather than a kill shot, Mother Jones contemplated the following:
Why did Scott [the victim] run? The answer came when the New York Times revealed Scott to be a man of modest means trapped in an exhausting hamster wheel: He would get a low-paying job, make some child support payments, fall behind on them, get fined, miss a payment, get jailed for a few weeks, lose that job due to absence and then start over at a lower-paying job. From all apparent evidence, he was a decent schlub trying to make things work in a system engineered to make his life miserable and recast his best efforts as criminal behavior.Mother Jones
Still Banned by the US Constitution
Even though reforms are being enacted slowly but steadily, there are still people in this country being jailed for simply owing money to local governments. A website called The Hill estimates that 10 million Americans owe $50 billion in criminal justice debt.
Conjure up a visual of a debtors’ prison, and you’re likely to see a 19th Century fortress filled to the brim with destitute, indigent men. It was the customary way to deal with unpaid debt. The modern debtors’ prison is the local jail or, hopefully in this pandemic, an ankle monitoring device.
In America, the 14th amendment to the Constitution prohibits incarceration for indigence. Case law has either strengthened or weakened the spirit of the 14th Amendment over the years. But in 1983, the US Supreme Court fortified the principle of equal protection under the law in a resounding (and surprising) unanimous decision.
Bearden v. Georgia
The case was Bearden v. Georgia. Danny Bearden was a first offender charged with theft in a Georgia court. He was sentenced to fines totaling $750, with $100 payable on his day in court and an unwieldy schedule of payments to follow. Bearden borrowed money for the first two payments, but then he was laid off from his job. He promptly notified the Georgia probation office of his impending financial plight. The state of Georgia accordingly revoked Bearden’s probation and sentenced him to prison.
The Supreme Court ruled that an authority may not imprison a person solely because he or she lacked the financial resources to make payment. Writing for the unanimous majority, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor asserted,
The state may not use as the sole justification for imprisonment the poverty or inability of the probationer to pay the fine or to make restitution if he has demonstrated sufficient bona fide effort to do so.Justice Sandra Day O’Connor
Here is an excellent three minute video that covers other aspects of debtors’ prisons, published by BBC News via YouTube:
Jailing a person because he or she lacks the funds to pay a fine or fee can have a devastating impact on someone whose only real crime is being poor. Lacking the bucks to make a proper payment…having to sometimes choose between paying a fine or buying food or medicine…seeing his or her job prospects and credit rating diminish…all these folks remain tethered to a criminal justice system that is interested only in their meager installments.
There is plenty of blame to go around: Municipal authorities which design revenue generators that pick the pockets of those least able to afford it…police who willingly write tickets with revenue in mind rather than the safety of the community…and corporate state and local tax avoidance in the Age of Trump.
In Ferguson, No More Policing for Profit
You remember Ferguson, Missouri, and the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer. A Grand Jury chose not to indict the cop and riots ensued. But in its aftermath, the underbelly of this tragedy was revealed. The City of Ferguson, along with 14 other municipalities in the St. Louis, Missouri, suburb of North County, were “increasingly reliant on fines and traffic court fees to fund government operations,” according to Governing magazine.
In fact, in some North County communities, fines and court costs were a whopping 65% of total revenue. This nickel and diming of the populace was unmasked as the real reason for the poor police/community relationship that led to Michael Brown’s death.
It was also a catalyst for change.
You might say that some local authorities became crusading reformers. An amnesty program allowed North County citizens who failed to appear in municipal court to reschedule a hearing without additional fines or imprisonment. Ferguson halted failure-to-appear warrants and dismissed charges in pending cases.
These are steps in the right direction. But here’s the thing: Just like in civil asset forfeiture, no meaningful change can be made until it is codified in law that no proceeds can be returned to the authority that imposed them. It is the foundation for corruption.
Find another way to get your revenue. Or step aside and let someone else figure it out.