Many people came to America when it was founded to escape from being jailed overseas for not paying their crippling debt. So “debtor’s prison” was made illegal in this country. Well, guess what: thanks to the “Republican Revolution”, it’s back. In an effort to return as much government money as possible to private (i.e., corporate) hands, conservative politicians have been doing away with part of the court system by hiring collection agencies to not only collect from, but also jail people who owe fines.
Now, and this is important, you need to understand that fines are assessed when jail time is prohibited by law. Misdemeanors such as traffic fines are a good example. But failure to pay those fines can land you in jail. Enter the private sector.
Half a century ago in a landmark case, the Supreme Court ruled that those accused of crimes had to be provided a lawyer if they could not afford one. But in misdemeanors, the right to counsel is rarely brought up, even though defendants can run the risk of jail. The probation companies promise revenue to the towns, while saying they also help offenders, and the defendants often end up lost in a legal Twilight Zone.
In other words, if you can’t afford the fine, then some private collection agency will not only slap you with more fees (to cover their costs), but will put you in jail for doing something like…well, speeding, for example. Then they charge you a daily fee for being in jail. And what does the judicial system get out of this? When fees are collected, they are often put into completely different programs (like vacations for politicians). When fees aren’t collected, then the taxpayers foot the bill for jail time that should never have happened.
The justice system sometimes assesses defendants fees to cover the costs of running the system, but the judicial system isn’t, and shouldn’t be, a for-profit system. To the contrary, we deliberately insulate officials within the justice system from financial incentives to ensure their impartiality. Giving private, for-profit companies power over defendants undermines the integrity of the judicial process, because the companies’ first responsibility is to maximize their bottom line, not to serve the interests of justice.
One thing that concerns me (but no one else is bringing up) is the question: is there any connection between the private companies that are putting people in jail and the private companies that are running the jails (for profit) in more and more places? If you don’t think this is a serious issue, try clicking on the links below and read the stories of people who wound up in jail, owing thousands of dollars for what began as a simple fine. Think what you’ll do if it happens to you, and then come back and tell me “it’s just not a real problem”…