Debtors' Prisons Are Still Going Strong
The phrase "debtors' prison" conjures images of Dickensian squalor, colonial indenture, and orphans continuously begging for more despite the fact that you just ate, you little dick, give it time to settle. Time was, if you couldn't pay what you owed, you went to a debtor's prison and stayed there until you'd labored your debt away or had a rich uncle die or something. Now cut to modern America. Debtors' prisons have returned with a vengeance -- they've only changed the way they operate. For the worse.
Henry NichollsWe don't house them in friggin' castles anymore, for one thing.
Turns out that state and local courts can handily supplement their budgets by smacking poor defendants with more hidden fees than your local Wells Fargo. They obviously abuse this ability, because humanity's chief strength is finding new ways to be awful. It is now, in effect, a crime to be poor. Here's how it works: Take a criminal mastermind who's guilty of heinous violations like "parking tickets" and "lapsed car registrations" -- fees the defendants were unable to pay because they were too poor in the first place. Now proceed to throw these poor people in jail for not having enough money. Then slap them with a bunch of fees and charges for having inconvenienced the state by taking up so much valuable jail space. Cue a never-ending circle of financial hell until the day they die.
If that system sounds ridiculous, so do the fees that they use. There are at least 20 different fees a court can punch you with. In places like Oklahoma, the number goes up to a ridiculous 66, including (but far from limited to) "sheriff's fee or pursuing fugitive from justice," "courthouse security fee," and a fee for applying for a freaking public defender.
Hulton Archive/Getty ImagesHistorical depiction of all that punching.
This is not a tiny handful of petty criminals stuck in some bureaucratic nightmare, either. In Rhode Island alone, 18 people a day are thrown into the modern equivalent of debtors' prison for failure to pay fines. And to ensure that the poor can't mooch a 50 off their cousin to stay out of prison, these aren't nickel-and-dime fees. Even the most basic mandatory ones like "victim penalty assessment" ($500) and "DNA database fee" ($100) will leave you hundreds of dollars in the red. The average legal financial obligations slapped on a defendant is a ridiculous $2,540, in a day and age when most Americans couldn't cobble together $400 in a crisis. Oh, and the annual interest rate is 12 percent. That's like shitty credit predatory car loan interest.