Cash-Strapped States Resurrect "Debtors’ Prisons"

Cash-Strapped States Resurrect “Debtors’ Prisons”

Former Montgomery County, Ohio, public defender Glen H. Dewar is profiled in the ACLU report for his efforts in eliminating the state’s debtors’ prisons. Dewar stated in the report, “My estimate is that 20 to 25 percent of all local incarcerations statewide are for fines and costs, while about 50 percent of arrests are for fines and costs … [until 2000], none of the persons arrested for nonpayment of fines and costs appeared on any court docket. Nor were they ever scheduled to appear at any particular time before any particular judge or magistrate.” Before county jail records were computerized, Dewar said, “the scope of the problem, in terms of both numbers of arrests and days in jail, remained hidden … the county also expanded jail space at a cost of millions, unaware of the fact that it was not for criminals but debtors.”

As noted in the Brennan Center report, several states have also started to utilize practices that violate the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees defendants a right to counsel. Florida, North Carolina and Virginia have all implemented mandatory defender fees and provide no opportunity to waive them for indigent cases.

Brennan Center for Justice notes:

Many states are imposing new and often onerous “user fees” on individuals with criminal convic­tions. Yet far from being easy money, these fees impose severe – and often hidden – costs on com­munities, taxpayers, and indigent people convicted of crimes. They create new paths to prison for those unable to pay their debts and make it harder to find employment and housing as well to meet child support obligations.

This report examines practices in the fifteen states with the highest prison populations, which to­gether account for more than 60 percent of all state criminal filings. We focused primarily on the proliferation of “user fees,” financial obligations imposed not for any traditional criminal justice purpose such as punishment, deterrence, or rehabilitation but rather to fund tight state budgets.

Across the board, we found that states are introducing new user fees, rais­ing the dollar amounts of existing fees, and intensifying the collection of fees and other forms of criminal justice debt such as fines and restitution. But in the rush to collect, made all the more intense by the fiscal crises in many states, no one is considering the ways in which the resulting debt can undermine reentry prospects, pave the way back to prison or jail, and result in yet more costs to the public.