The resurrection of debtors' prisons in the U.S. - part 2

There’s been an increase in the number of people sent to jail who can’t pay their court fines. But why? A recent NPR investigation about debtors prisons may have the answer.

The increased practice of sending indigent offenders to jail for their failure to pay court fines has been spotlighted in various media outlets recently amid an NPR new investigation on the issue. Arguments have stirred about whether judges are within their lawful authority to send offenders to what's often referred to as debtors' prison.

But some say that a more pressing question seems to be overlooked. Why are there so many people today who can't afford to pay their court fines?

Skyrocketing court fees

One potential reason could be attributed to the skyrocketing cost of court fees today.

In the past, many people had the money to pay their court fines. But today, even middle class folks are finding it difficult to come up with the necessary funds needed to pay for costly court fees. Court fines that were once a hundred dollars or less are now thousands or tens of thousands of dollars.

Danny Bearden, the individual at the heart of the 1983 Supreme Court case that confirmed the ban on debtors' prisons, was assessed $500 in fines and $250 in restitution for his crime. If he committed the same crime today, he would face a much larger fine-likely three times as much.

Charging for government services

Not only are court fees increasing, many states are now refusing to pay for government services that were once free-even ones stipulated as such in the constitution-and forcing offenders today to pay for requisite conditions that go in tandem with their punishment.

NPR surveyed all 50 states including the District of Columbia and found some alarming facts:

  • In 42 states, it's lawful to bill defendants for the cost of a public defender.

  • In 44 states, it's lawful to bill offenders for probation services and parole supervision.

  • In 41 states, it's lawful to charge incarcerated inmates the cost of room and board.

  • In 49 states, offenders on parole must pay for the cost of their electronic monitoring bracelets.

The need for advocacy

Given budget constraints of states and local municipalities all over the country, the problem is only likely to get worse. States are continuously raising the cost of court fines. In 2010 alone, 48 states increased their criminal and civil fees.

And with the shrinking middle class and lack of high paying jobs, anyone who gets into trouble with the law-even for a minuscule offense-will likely not have the sufficient funds to pay their court fines-and thus face potential jail time as a result.

It's more important than ever for those facing criminal charges today of any degree to seek legal advocacy. A lawyer knowledgeable in this area of law can offer vital support.


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