Debtor’s Prisons, Part II
In March, 2013 I wrote a blog on the subject of debtor’s prisons where I noted that as far back as the fourteenth century “London jails became used as a method to extract payment from those in debt.” I have not kept up on this subject since then but a recent story in Huffington Post about the death of a woman who was put in jail because she failed to pay some fines caught my eye. The title tells it all: “Mother Of 7 Jailed For Kids' Truancy Fines Found Dead In Cell.”
I did a quick Google search and found several other articles related to this subject, to which I will return shortly. The woman who died was serving a two-day sentence for fines totaling $2,000 that had accrued since 1999. What were the fines for you might ask? They stemmed from truancy charges against some of her seven children and other fines (e.g., a trash bill). The cause of her death is unknown at this time.
The judge who sentenced her voiced strong objections of “Pennsylvanian laws that criminalize such lapses as truancy or failing to pay a trash bill.” He said: "This lady didn't need to be there. We don't do debtors prisons anymore. That went out 100 years ago."
Well apparently we do this and do it often. The Huffington Post story about this woman noted that: “More than 1,600 people have been jailed in Berks County alone — two-thirds of them women — over truancy fines since 2000.”
Many recent cases stem directly from the growing use of private companies that have taken over probation duties. Yes, you read that correctly: a private, for-profit company doing the work traditionally assigned to probation officers! In this case the company is Sentinel Offender Services, a company that has been doing business since 1993. According to their web site their goal is “monitoring and supervising offender populations. As correctional agencies search for alternatives to incarceration or supervision for their inmate or probationer populations, we developed a comprehensive Spectrum of Services that allows correctional agencies to select an effective solution to their needs.” They boast a 98% “customer retention rate.” The “services” run the usual spectrum of electronic monitoring, GPS tracking, “full-service case management,” etc.
They also boast that “our services can be provided at no cost to the agency.” Yes, but this is because the costs are paid by parents of the youth placed on probation. To no surprise to most of us with knowledge the modern justice system, the majority of these families are poor and/or minorities who can barely make ends meet to begin with.
The case of Kathleen Hucks is typical. According to a recent story: “In 2006 she was convicted of driving under the influence, possession of marijuana, and driving with a suspended license in Columbia County, Georgia. She successfully completed her probation and paid all of her court-issued fines.” Or so she thought. Unfortunately she was apparently unaware of some additional costs leveled by Sentinel Offender Services. She had moved about six years ago to another county in Georgia and was out walking her dog one day and was stopped by a police officer who asked for her identification (why he did this is not reported in this story but it is very curious). The officer discovered an outstanding warrant filed by Sentential Offender Services.
She was released twenty days later when a judge ruled that she was locked up illegally (because she was not told about the warrant), saying to Sentential "Look here, I'm going to tell you right now: you don’t come into my court room acting like it’s McDonald’s or Burger King. You don’t get it your way."
As I and many others have said before, jails are like the old “poorhouses” of 200 years ago. And the privatization movement that began in the 1980s has found its way into these modern poorhouses. A recent Human Rights Watch study appropriately titled Profiting from Probation: America’s “Offender-Funded” Probation Industry concluded that: “some company probation officers behave like abusive debt collectors.” The report notes that “the fee structure of offender-funded probation is inherently discriminatory against poor offenders, and imposes the greatest financial burden on those who are least able to afford to pay. In fact, the business of many private probation companies is built largely on the willingness of courts to discriminate against poor offenders who can only afford to pay their fines in installments over time.”
In times of economic stagnation that covers much of the nation – especially in rural areas where poverty rates are high – there has been increasing pressure to generate as much revenue as possible. Leveling fines and court costs against mostly misdemeanants may help raise revenue but at the same time push many people further into poverty.
I will follow up this blog with an update in the near future.
Posted in Blog, Social Justice
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