Monday, April 6, 2009

Debtors' Prisons and the Rights of the Poor

The NYT opined today that states should buck the apparently increasing practice of jailing people because they're poor, calling this both "barbaric and unconstitutional."  (Many thanks to Jon Gutek for the tip.)

The NYT:

In Georgia, poor people who cannot pay off fines--plus a monthly fee to the private company that collects the payments--are often sent to jail for nonpayment, according to Stephen Bright, president of the Southern Center for Human Rights. . . .

Until a few years ago, the police in Gulfport, Miss., regularly did sweeps of the city's predominantly African-American neighborhoods, identified people with unpaid fines, and put them in jail.  Defendants who could not pay were forced to remain there until they "sat off" their fines.  The city ended the practice after it was sued.

Prisoners' rights advocates worry that in these hard times, when government budgets are under pressure, courts and prisons will get even tougher about forcing indigent defendants to pay costs and fees, and will imprison more of them if they cannot come up with the money.  The government should be helping people on society's margins build productive lives.  Throwing them in jail for being poor makes that much more difficult.

The editorial is right, of course: This is unconstitutional (and barbaric).  The editorial references Williams v. Illinois (1970) and Bearden v. Georgia (1983)--and we might add Tate v. Short (1971)--together holding that the state violates the Equal Protection Clause when it jails an individual for nonpayment of a fine, as long as the individual made all reasonable efforts to pay the fine and the inability to pay was no fault of his or her own.  From Bearden (O'Connor for the Court):

But if the probationer has made all reasonable efforts to pay the fine or restitution, and yet cannot do so through no fault of his own, it is fundamentally unfair to revoke probation automatically without considering whether adequate alternative methods of punishing the defendant are available.

In more pointed language, Williams quotes Griffin v. Illinois:

There can be no equal justice where the kind of trial a man gets depends on the amount of money he has.

SDS

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