Debtor’s prison

Galleries of Justice Museum - High Pavement, Nottingham - Debtor's Prison & Dark Cells - The Dark Cells

I was working on the mayoral race when I was shocked to find out that city jails were filled with harmless offenders who couldn’t afford to pay even a $100 fine. It’s disgusting, and it’s un-American. I’m glad that Georgia is taking some steps to reduce the financial penalties for poor people caught in the legal system, but of course it’s still not enough:

It’s not yet signed and sealed, but human rights advocates are feeling hopeful that Georgia will rein in its detested, Jim Crow-esque probation system, which routinely jails people who can’t afford to pay court fines and probation fees for offenses as minor as a speeding ticket.

The bill, which sailed through a House judiciary committee Thursday and is expected to be voted on by the state legislature Monday, won’t end the practice of farming out probation cases to private contractors, but it would at least redefine the terms. It would limit, for example, the number of months companies can charge a probationer for their services, force private players to disclose their finances, and remind judges of their power to sentence people to community service in lieu of unpaid fines. Finally, it would also create a new state agency to make sure the rules are followed. The bill already has the approval of Gov. Nathan Deal, whose criminal-justice panel made the recommendations on which it is based.

“It’s not just the companies that are the bad guys; it’s the courts, who are not paying attention to what those companies are doing.”

Since 2000, when the state transferred to the counties all responsibility for handling misdemeanors, many courts have hired private companies to track probationers, handle the paperwork, and collect payments. Yet because probationers are required to cover the management costs, the companies had an incentive to keep them on the hook as long as possible. It is, as reporter Celia Perry noted in a 2008Mother Jones story, “a way to milk scarce dollars from the poorest of the poor,” who, in many Georgia counties, are disproportionately black. Human Rights Watch, in a February 2014 report entitled Profiting from Probation, calls it “an extremely muscular form of debt collection masquerading as probation supervision, with all costs billed to the debtor.”

While probation was originally instituted as a jail alternative for individuals whose crimes—like petty larceny or public intoxication—didn’t warrant it, the system has expanded to ensnare anyone who can’t pay their fines in full on the day of sentencing. With this “pay-only” probation model, there’s no community service or mandated support groups. Yet, as with traditional probation, any misstep—including failure to make a payment—can result in jail time.

That’s because many judges automatically rule as though the people who fall behind on their payments do so by choice.

In fact, those judges are flouting the law. A 1983 Supreme Court decision prohibits courts from jailing a person simply because she can’t pay. Instead, a judge must hold a hearing to prove that the person “willingly” chose not to pay. But such hearings are rare. Critics of the system point out that cash-strapped counties get addicted to the revenue it brings in.