More on Debtor’s Prisons

by on July 3, 2012 at 7:29 am in Law | Permalink

In my post Debtor’s Prison for Failure to Pay for Your Own Trial I wrote:

Debtor’s prisons are supposed to be illegal in the United States but today poor people who fail to pay even small criminal justice fees are routinely being imprisoned. The problem has gotten worse recently because strapped states have dramatically increased the number of criminal justice fees.

I then discussed how a small debt can spiral out of control:

Failure to pay criminal justice fees can result in revocation of an individual’s drivers license, arrest and imprisonment. Individuals with revoked licenses who drive (say to work to earn money to pay their fees) and are apprehended can be further fined and imprisoned.

The New York Times is now on the case and gives an example:

Three years ago, Gina Ray, who is now 31 and unemployed, was fined $179 for speeding. She failed to show up at court (she says the ticket bore the wrong date), so her license was revoked.

When she was next pulled over, she was, of course, driving without a license. By then her fees added up to more than $1,500. Unable to pay, she was handed over to a private probation company and jailed — charged an additional fee for each day behind bars.

For that driving offense, Ms. Ray has been locked up three times for a total of 40 days and owes $3,170, much of it to the probation company.

1 dearieme July 3, 2012 at 7:39 am

This would have been more suitable as a Fourth of July posting, perhaps.

2 Ian July 14, 2012 at 8:46 pm

I beg to differ. It would have been more suitable as a Halloween posting!

3 Todd July 3, 2012 at 8:00 am

There is no great stagnation for public-private armies.

4 bob July 3, 2012 at 8:57 am


5 John Thacker July 3, 2012 at 9:08 am

I am no fan of outsourcing criminal justice. I do think that they exacerbate the problem.

And yet as Alex’s prior post and the Brennan Center demonstrates, these fees and fines hardly seem to be limited to cases involving outsourcing and for-profit companies.

It seems like a bad practice regardless of the involvement of profit.

6 Bill July 3, 2012 at 10:05 am

+1 The problem is incentives, right. You have the deputized power of the state in these private businesses, you have politicians who have political contributors who own these companies, and you have the poor or those without voice or sympathy.

What more could you ask for.

And, what else could you expect.

If you are going to deputize someone to collect, maybe it should be the Sisters of Charity.

7 Slocum July 3, 2012 at 12:05 pm

“The problem is incentives, right. You have the deputized power of the state in these private businesses, you have politicians who have political contributors who own these companies, and you have the poor or those without voice or sympathy.”

And how is this dynamic different, say, than the bad incentives and political clout of the California prison guards union? The incentive problem is the same regardless of whether the system is public, private, or some combination of the two. I’m not a fan of private prisons, but to pretend the bad incentives and abuses are peculiar to ‘outsourced’ law enforcement misses the point. Even more egregious than these ‘new debtors prisons’ problems are asset forfeiture abuses, and in that case the confiscated money and property goes directly to LEO and other state agencies with no private parties involved.

8 Bill July 3, 2012 at 12:24 pm

Slo, Do prison union members lobby for the creation of new prisons like the private prison companies do?
Do they lobby for longer sentences like private prison companies?
Or, do the union members include social workers, nurses and people who believe in correction?
One other difference: you are more likely to examine a union members wages and contract because they are transparent, rather than examine the terms of a private prison contract. You wouldn’t know where to start in examining that contract. And, if you are relying on competition, forget it: What do you do when you decide not to renew the private prison contract? What are your options? Move the the prisoners to another private prison facility? Good luck. Real lock-in effect with private contracts.

9 msgkings July 3, 2012 at 1:01 pm

‘lock-in effect’ with ‘private (prison) contracts’

Well done

10 Urso July 3, 2012 at 2:08 pm

“Do prison union members lobby for the creation of new prisons like the private prison companies do?
Do they lobby for longer sentences like private prison companies?”

Yes; yes.

11 Urso July 3, 2012 at 2:12 pm

In CA at least the prison guard’s union is the absolute worst offender on this kind of lobbying, which leads to the overcrowding as addressed in the USSC opinion issued last year. From the website of the California Correctional Peace Officer’s Association (which is a union):

“The “Three Strikes and You’re Out” initiative was circulated in the summer of 1993 in hopes of qualifying for the November 1994 ballot (Proposition 184). This initiative was strongly backed by CCPOA.”

12 Bill July 3, 2012 at 3:52 pm

Urso and Slocum,

When you have private prisons, legislators do not have to support bond issues to support prison construction and to pay for their “tough on crime” pronouncements, or their opposition to differential sentences.

As to unions, please note that California prisons were under federal orders to relieve prison overcrowding, and working in overcrowded (and hence more dangerous) facilities is something you would expect a union to have a position on.

13 John Thacker July 3, 2012 at 4:36 pm

As to unions, please note that California prisons were under federal orders to relieve prison overcrowding, and working in overcrowded (and hence more dangerous) facilities is something you would expect a union to have a position on.

Which has entirely nothing to do with the California public prison guard union heavily pushing three strikes laws and lobbying for longer sentences, and sabotaging efforts to do rehabilitation instead.

Here’s a report from a California progressive group:

For decades, the 30,000-member union has worked tirelessly to see more prisons built, while sabotaging prisoner rehabilitation, education, and treatment programs….The Prison Guards have spent millions to defeat treatment-over-incarceration proposals like Proposition 36, 66 and 5, which have been proven to save taxpayers money while decreasing recidivism rates.

Here’s another progressive site, a public radio feature complaining about the CA prison guards union.

As I said, I do believe that outsourcing prisons is a bad idea with bad incentives, and is most likely worse than public prisons. But people like Bill who try to close their eyes and deny any evidence of similar wrongdoing in public prisons (and by unions) are absolutely infuriating.

Bill, you’re acting like the mirror image of the worst stereotype you have of a libertarian. You’re being the person who will excuse any wrongdoing as long as it’s done by the government instead of a private corporation.

14 Bill July 3, 2012 at 5:01 pm

John, thanks for the info. I disagree with the union. But, that doesn’t mean one should pristine.

15 Bill July 3, 2012 at 7:49 pm

Ipad error: one should be for private prisons.

16 Bob Savage July 3, 2012 at 8:05 am

Maybe the states should outsource this work to the Gambino family. You know small business types.

17 Andrew' July 3, 2012 at 8:32 am

Don’t think of them as fines. Think of them as taxes. Feel better now?

18 John Thacker July 3, 2012 at 9:12 am

Don’t forget to justify them on the basis of the externalities that criminal behavior, even misdemeanors impose. Or the problem of people free-riding by not obtaining a license or automobile insurance.

In fairness, the PPACA/Obamacare does contain a provision supposed to prevent people from actually being thrown in prison for failing to make their payments to the for-profit companies to which health care is outsourced. It seems like that would help in this situation with the problem described.

19 Todd July 3, 2012 at 9:18 am

I join your post only as to result, not as to reasoning.

20 Yancey Ward July 3, 2012 at 11:07 am

Damn it, Andrew, I had exactly this reply ready to go.

21 Edward Pierce July 3, 2012 at 11:26 am

*slow clap*

22 Ed July 3, 2012 at 10:54 am

WIth Obama fare, the government tax authorities are doing the collecting, but (supposedly) private companies get the money. With criminal justice, private companies are doing the collecting and the government gets the money.

But the end result is thinly disguised tax farmers going out and shaking down peasants, with the aid of the police, since the government can’t squeeze the big landowners. Historically, this is almost the normal way things are done but its sad to see the United States following the model.

23 Jimmy July 3, 2012 at 11:27 am

This is about freedom. Without freedom, you can’t do anything.

Are we not free to travel? Do we need governments “permission” to move about on public roadways? If the government seizes public land, and builds a road on it with our money, then isn’t it ours to use? The people grant government privileges. Who are they to grant us anything? Our rights are inherent. No man is in authority over another.

We the people do our business in private, not public. Unless we are in a contract with government, performing a function of government, then we are in private. Government only has jurisdiction over its business–not ours.

A crime is committed when there is an injured party or damage to someone’s private property. The State is an artificial entity and can not claim injury. Was the judge injured by Ms Ray’s speeding? Was the prosecuting attorney injured by her speeding? Was the officer injured? The State operates on presumptions, and it is every man’s duty to stand and present himself, not to be re-presented by another man, whereby he will forfeit all his rights to another.

Read Blacks Law Dictionary for the definition of words you think you know the meaning of, and find out how the legal society defines them. Start with person, citizen, act, understand (which really means agreed to) and sui juris instead of pro se, and never, ever give your consent.

24 So Much For Subtlety July 3, 2012 at 9:22 pm

Are we not free to travel? Do we need governments “permission” to move about on public roadways?

There are moves afoot to seize the driver’s licences and passports of any man silly enough not to make their child support payments. Because they are deployed in Iraq for instance. Little things like that.

So no, you’re not, and yes, you do.

25 AC July 3, 2012 at 11:47 am

Only $3170? I was expecting it to be a lot worse.

26 Your Inner Economist July 3, 2012 at 12:34 pm

It would be a lot worse if you lived on, say, $18k annually.

27 ohwilleke July 3, 2012 at 4:49 pm

FWIW, the controlling U.S. Supreme Court precedent states that it is unconstitutional to incarcerate someone for failure to pay criminal fines or costs if they are genuinely unable to pay it (ditto for child support). But, most state courts have inadequate means in place to determine if that is really the case in a way that affords genuine due process to someone who also can’t afford to pay for a lawyer. Ohio and Michigan have been cited as particularly egregious examples in this respect.

Obviously, it is insane from the point of the government to take this approach in a manner as uncalculated as it appears to be. It is one thing to use incarceration to shake money out of somewhat who clearly has the ability to pay and is merely reluctant and has hard to seize assets (self-employed, doesn’t use bank accounts or uses off shore bank accounts, etc.) and quite another to use it to try to squeeze blood out of a turnup. It doesn’t even make sense as a strategic device to enforce compliance because lots of the people incarcerated are simply blind sided and don’t expect it and couldn’t act differently if they wanted to do so.

28 adam July 3, 2012 at 8:02 pm

You have to show up to court, no matter who you are.
If she had shown up to court, the judge would have let her pay $25 or $50 a month. I have seen it a hundred times. The key, to not being locked up, is showing up to court and being polite to the judge.

29 ohwilleke July 3, 2012 at 8:42 pm

The fact that it is possible to escape incarceration if you have a clue about how to interact with a strange to you bureaucracy does not mean that it makes any sense whatsoever to use scarce incarceration tax dollars to force people to pay money that they can’t pay and reduce their earning capacity. Incarceration is an expensive and counterproductive way to deal with petty unpaid debts, which is why “body execution” ceased to be a valid debt collection method for most creditors decades ago. This is a clear, lose-lose approach.

30 m July 4, 2012 at 3:54 am

If only the poor read high-brow economics blogs, all these problems.would never exist.

31 Tim July 3, 2012 at 9:04 pm

Based on the excerpt, she has the financial resources to use a car. She was cited for speeding. She knew her license was revoked. She drove anyway. She was pulled over a second time. That trend does not generate sympathy, as she made a series of increasingly serious mistakes.

I realize sophisticates can learn the system, hire lawyers, or even declare bankruptcy to stave off financial punishment. But if one assumes the story was about, say, a recent immigrant, perhaps not handy with the language, I still think plenty of people in that community trade stories about getting traffic tickets and know what not to do. I am having a hard time accepting her plight as that of someone truly disenfranchised, she sounds more like a mere slacker.

32 John Smith July 4, 2012 at 1:20 am

I agree. She knew what she was doing and decided to do it anyway.

33 Your Inner Economist July 5, 2012 at 9:28 am

America does love to lock poor people up.

I guess it’s what Tim and John Smith vote for.

34 John David Galt July 3, 2012 at 11:53 pm

I have no problem with governments outsourcing punishment functions if it saves money, but defendants for minor crimes should not be having to pay any part of the costs of their own incarceration.

And extending the sentence when they can’t pay probably means they can’t vote for the extended time, which violates the 24th Amendment. If no one has filed a challenge on that basis yet they ought to.

35 J in StL July 9, 2012 at 10:13 pm

A government is illegitimate when it is indistinguishable from an organized crime syndicate. When the police’s main function is stealing from anyone passing by they are no different than pirates on the high seas.

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