Dickensian debtors’ jails… in the modern US

A fifty-something woman, Debra Ford, is pulled over by the police in rural Alabama for a faulty taillight. She is driving without a licence and receives a fine which she struggles to pay, having been surviving on $670 a month disability payments after a car accident a decade earlier. What happens next is an astonishing example of the potential impact of part-privatisation of a criminal justice system, taken from an article published by The Nation:

Ford tried to meet her mounting debt to Harpersville, but as the months passed and the fees added up, she fell behind and stopped paying. In June 2007, the company sent a letter telling her to pay $145 immediately or face jail. But the letter was returned as undeliverable—a fact that did not stop the Harpersville Municipal Court from issuing a warrant for her arrest. Almost two years later, in January 2009, Ford was arrested on that outstanding warrant and promptly booked in the county jail—where, to offset costs, the town charged her $31 a day for her stay.

Ford spent seven weeks in jail, during which time her debt grew into the thousands. She did not, however, see the inside of a courtroom. All the lawyer hired by her family managed to do was to eventually get her transferred to a work-release program, which stopped her jail fees from growing and allowed her to live in a closed facility, the Shelby County Work Release Center, while going to work. Ford found a minimum-wage job at a local thrift store, but after buying food and handing a cut to the work-release program—40 percent of her gross earnings—there wasn’t much left to pay off the fines that kept her there. What had started as a simple traffic violation had become an indefinite sentence in a debtors’ purgatory—one that would take years to pay her way out.

Charged for each day in jail??? Is this just an isolated incident, the product of twisted small town demagoguery? It seems not:

What happened to Ford in the small town of Harpersville was tangled and unconstitutional—but hardly unique. Similar tales have been playing out in more than 1,000 courts across the country, from Georgia to Idaho. In the face of strained budgets and cuts to public services, state and local governments have been stepping up their efforts to ensure that the criminal justice system pays for itself. They have increased fines and court costs, intensified law enforcement efforts, and passed so-called “pay-to-stay” laws that charge offenders daily jail fees. They have also begun contracting with “offender-funded” probation companies like JCS, which offer a particularly attractive solution—collection, at no cost to the court.

There’s a lot of compelling stuff in this detailed article, including other examples of the impact on people struggling to make ends meet, and examples of the overweening influence of private probation companies on under-resourced courts. Terrifying when you think this is the richest country on Earth.

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