Unpaid Court Fees Land The Poor In 21st Century Debtors' Prisons

May 20, 2014
Originally published on May 23, 2014 7:50 am

Debtors' prisons were outlawed in the United States back before the Civil War. But an NPR state-by-state survey found that people still get sent to jail for unpaid court fines and fees.

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More than three decades ago, the U.S. Supreme Court made it clear: Judges cannot send people to jail because they're too poor to pay their court fines. The justices ruled that that would effectively bring back debtor's prisons and debtor's prisons were outlawed in the U.S. before the Civil War.

But in an investigation by NPR for a series we're calling Guilty and Charged, we found that people across the country are still being sent to jail for unpaid fines and fees. NPR's Joseph Shapiro reports.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Debtor's prisons were outlawed in the United States nearly 200 years ago and the U.S. Supreme Court three times since 1970 ruled that people can't be sent to jail simply for being too poor to pay their court fines and fees.

JIM LOHR: Mr. Chief Justice, may it please the court...

SHAPIRO: The last case was argued in 1983.

LOHR: This case involves the revocation of an indigent's probation for his failure to pay a fine and restitution which was...

SHAPIRO: That's Jim Lohr, who argued Bearden vs. Georgia. Lohr was just out of law school when he got assigned what seemed an insignificant case. He spend long hours in the county law library.

LOHR: I mean it was a long shot and I guess I just didn't know any better to ignore that, so I went ahead with it.

SHAPIRO: He was representing Danny Bearden, a young man charged with breaking into a trailer. Bearden was fined several hundred dollars, but then he lost his factory job. He knocked on neighbors' doors asking to mow lawns. When he couldn't pay the rest of his fines, he was sent to jail. In Bearden, the Supreme Court ruled that judges can't send someone to jail simply because they're too poor to pay their court debt, only if the person had the ability to pay but had willfully refused.

NPR looked at courts around the country and found in the three decades since Bearden, there's been an explosion in the use of fines and fees. Services long considered free now carry a charge, sometimes hundreds of dollars. NPR reviewed the laws in 50 states. Forty-three states now allow people to be charged for their public defender. When someone goes to jail, they can be charged room and board in 41 states.

When they're assigned a probation or parole officer, in 44 states they can be charged for that too. We also found wide variation in how judges determine who's too poor to pay, and so every day, all around the country, poor people go to jail because they can't come up with the money.

DANNY BEARDEN: No, I'm not surprised. I see it all the time, even people that works for me.

SHAPIRO: That's Danny Bearden. Thirty-one years after his Supreme Court victory, he's a supervisor at a small textile plant in rural Georgia. He sees people, his co-workers, his neighbors, his friends get charged for things like driving offenses, fines and fees that now can add up to hundreds, even thousands of dollars.

BEARDEN: They're just poor people, okay? They got families and everything like that. They work a job. And even when they get behind in trying to pay, they go to jail.

SHAPIRO: People like Stephen Papa. He served in Iraq with the Army National Guard, but when he came home to Michigan in 2012, he couldn't find a job. He was homeless, counting on friends to give him a couch to sleep on. Poppa admits he was wrong that day last August when he and some friends spent the day drinking.

STEPHEN PAPA: It was kind of embarrassing 'cause I'm not that type of person, but we had got highly intoxicated and climbed onto the roof of an abandoned building. There was a hole broken in the window so we went inside and then we got surrounded and then we got arrested.

SHAPIRO: Papa speaks from the Kent County Jail in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He was sentenced to 22 days, not for what he did that day he was drunk, but because he couldn't pay his court debt. In a recording from the court session last September, Grand Rapids District Court Judge Benjamin Logan says he wants $50, but Poppa had only $25.


SHAPIRO: The judge wanted a first payment on the $2,600 that Poppa was charged in restitution, fines and court fees. The judge said Poppa could've made money by picking up cans to recycle.


SHAPIRO: Papa said he tried and the only reason he had even $25 in his pocket was because he'd built a shed for friend's grandparents.


SHAPIRO: Just the week before, Stephen Papa had found a job, a good one paying $12 an hour making steel shelves. He told the judge he'd get his first paycheck at the end of the week and then he'd have the money to pay.


SHAPIRO: But he wasn't sure that job would be waiting if he spent three weeks in jail. Still, that's where the judge sent him and added a condition to his probation for when he got out.


SHAPIRO: In other words, if Poppa didn't have a job when he got out, he'd be in violation of his probation and could go back to jail.

PAPA: I tried telling the judge, like, throwing me in jail is going to do no good. You're not going to get your fines like you want and I'm going to lose my job and you're really not going to get your fines if I don't have a job. And it's just, I don't know, it just baffled me.

SHAPIRO: It's left to judges to make the difficult calculation who's too poor to pay and who can but didn't. And we found sweeping discrepancies across the country over how those decisions are made. Some judges will tell an offender to give up their phone service or quit smoking cigarettes and use the money instead to pay court debt. Judge Robert Swisher, a superior court judge in Benton County, Washington, says he'll make a judgment based on how someone presents themselves in court.

ROBERT SWISHER: They come in wearing expensive jackets or maybe a thousand dollars worth of tattoos on their arms and they say, well, I'm just living on handouts. But they're wearing expensive clothing and expensive tattoos. Those are things you look at.

SHAPIRO: Attorneys who defend poor clients say the Supreme Court's Bearden decision requires courts to more formally consider a defendant's ability to pay, but they say it almost never happens. Defendants don't know their right to ask for a hearing, and for judges those hearings would clog up the court schedule. Lauren Brooke Eisen, an attorney with the Brennan Center for Justice, faults judges for not doing enough to find alternatives for impoverished defendants.

They could assign more community service or even waive some fines and fees.

LAUREN BROOKE EISEN: Fines and fees create new pathways back to jail and prison. You're just sending these people back for not even committing a crime, but just missing a payment.

SHAPIRO: I called Stephen Papa, the Iraq vet, after he got out of jail. When you go out, was your job waiting for you?

PAPA: Yes and no.

SHAPIRO: Right away he called his workplace and was told...

PAPA: That my position was filled, but the boss was going to try to find some work for me just to help me out.

SHAPIRO: His boss did call him back to the factory when another worker got injured, but that was to fill in for just a few months. Now he's found a new job that he likes as a security guard, but it pays a lot less, $4 an hour less. To stay out of jail, Stephen Papa needs that full-time job, and to keep paying the $40 a month that he still owes the court. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: Tomorrow, the story of a young man who caught a fish out of season and went to jail because he couldn't pay the fine. It's MORNING EDITION. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.