The resurrection of debtors prisons in the U.S. - part 1

In 1983, SCOTUS ruled that a people cannot be sent to jail because they can’t pay their court fine. But, a recent NPR news investigation shows that some U.S. judges are doing just that.

In 1983, the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed the prohibition against debtors prisons in a case called Bearden v. Georgia. A person's probation cannot be revoked and replaced with incarceration if that person is unable to pay his or her court fine, the court stated. Their reasoning stemmed from a previous declaration by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Black a quarter-century ago who stated that "there can be no equal justice where the kind of trial a man gets depends on the amount of money he has."

But, according to the results of a recent NPR news investigation, judges in the U.S. are seemingly disregarding the ruling and sending indigent defendants unable to pay their court fines to jail.

The NPR investigation

NPR came to this conclusion after scrutinizing civil court penalties, interviewing over 100 lawyers, judges, criminal offenders, and government officials all across the country, and conducting surveys (with help of NYU's Brennan Center for Justice) in 2013. And the results concluded that debtors prisons have been resurrected. Judges today are in fact sending defendants to jail because they cannot pay their court fines.

But how is this possible? Didn't the Supreme Court rule that the practice was illegal? Yes, but there's a slight loophole in the law that judges are tailgating on.

The loophole

In Bearden v. Georgia, the U.S. Supreme Court stated that judges can't send offenders to jail because they are too poor to pay their court fees, but the court also stated that imprisonment is justified as a sanction if the "probationer has willfully refused to pay and has the means to pay."

But what does it mean to "willfully refuse to pay?" Unfortunately, the Supreme Court failed to elaborate on the definition in the Bearden case. And because of the ambiguity in the ruling, judges today are using their discretion to interpret its meaning-and in some cases to the detriment of offenders.

Cases in point

For instance, NPR discovered that some judges will rule that a defendant has willfully refused to pay a court fine if he or she refuses to quit smoking costly cigarettes or cancel their cellphone services.

Other judges will rule that a defendant has willfully refused to pay a court fine if he or she refuses to utilize government benefits like Social Security Disability Income or veterans' benefits to pay their fines.

And, astonishingly, some judges will simply disregard any evidence other than the basic appearance of the defendant in court when determining if he or she has the means to pay mandated court fines.

Disregarding the law?

It may be lawful for judges to utilize subjective discretion in determining a person's willful refusal to pay a court fee, but civil rights advocates are quick to point out a provision in the Bearden case that judges today are seemingly ignoring.

The court stated that even if convincing evidence is present to show a defendant's willful refusal, "it is fundamentally unfair to revoke probation automatically without considering whether adequate alternative methods of [punishment like community service] are available to meet the State's interest in punishment and deterrence."

Despite this provision, there doesn't seem to be many judges that are considering this.

Keywords: debtors prisons, court fines, jail