How Policing for Profit can lead to a Debtors’ Prisons: NMA E-Newsletter #429

Alexander City, Alabama has agreed to give $680,000 to nearly 200 people who were jailed because they were too poor to pay their court fines. The suit filed in September 2015 by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) claimed that the town ran “a modern-day debtors prison.” Indigent debtors served time in the municipal jail to pay off fines at the rate of $20 per day.

Alexander City’s lawyer Larkin Radley said that almost as soon as the suit was filed the city of 15,000 immediately changed its policies to allow poor people to pay fines either in installments or through community work. Although the city moved quickly to reform its jail system, the two sides needed a mediator to agree on how much to pay the plaintiffs in the class-action.

SPLC Deputy Legal Director Sam Brooke said that he hopes this suit and the settlement reached will encourage other court systems similar to Alexander City to change. He added, “The thing about modern-day debtors’ prisons is you never know where they’re going to be. They happen in places with local jurisdictions that have little oversight. That’s the only way a modern-day debtors prison can flourish. It only happens with people who are otherwise not accountable and no one is paying attention to them.”

In 1983, a U.S. Supreme Court decision banned jailing people because they cannot afford to pay fines. This standard has been eroding as more local governments have been using ticket fines to bolster revenues which has led to the jailing of more people who can’t pay.

This pernicious money grab by cities has ruined lives. When motorists cannot pay their traffic fines, they are faced with losing their driver’s licenses, their jobs, their housing and can go to jail. Trying to dig out of this spiral of poverty can be devastating to families.

One of the plaintiffs in the Alabama case is mother of five, Amanda Underwood, who was jailed twice for failing to pay traffic fines. According to court documents, Underwood will receive $15,000 and she said in an interview she plans to use the money to get back her suspended driver’s license and to find stable housing.  She added, “I just want to get my life back with my children.”

In more than a dozen states – Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Washington – civil rights groups have filed suits targeting court systems in large cities and smaller communities such as Alexander City. Ferguson, Missouri is one of the most notorious examples of a court system that emphasized revenue over justice.

One year ago, the America Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) testified before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights hearing on Municipal Policing and Courts: A Search for Justice or a Quest for Revenue. In their statement, the ACLU outlined 10 best practice reforms of Policing for Profit based on measures brought about by a suit in Biloxi, Mississippi.

1)    Elimination of for-profit probation.

2)    Adoption of Detailed court procedures and a “Bench Card”

3)    Judge’s consideration of ability to pay at sentencing.

4)    Establishment of a full-time public defender’s office.

5)    Termination of failure-to-pay warrants and establishment of compliance hearings

6)    Alternatives to incarceration without additional participation fees.

7)    Adoption of a clear standard for determining the inability to pay.

8)    Limitation on jail for non-payment.

9)    Limitation on third-party collections.

10) Robust procedural protections before reporting of nonpayment pursuant to driver’s license suspension.

The NMA would like to add a Number 11 to the ACLU list: Cessation of predatory enforcement practices in locations where sound traffic engineering principles aren’t applied.

Modern-day debtors’ prisons need to stop and so does policing for profit. Perhaps the best way for this to happen is by filing more legal actions against cities to bring their policies to light.

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