Op-Eds

Utah is finally eliminating debtors’ prisons — when will the rest of the country?


This op-ed was originally published in the Washington Examiner.

Are debtors’ prisons a thing of the past?

Congress banned them in 1833. The Supreme Court also held, in 1983, that incarcerating indigent individuals for failure to pay a fine is indeed unconstitutional. But these actions haven’t been enough to stop the government from locking up people for not paying their fines.

Not everyone has the resources to cover an unexpected fine. And the longer they take to pay, the more late fees the government can impose, further exacerbating the problem and perpetuating a cycle of debt to the state. In July, Utah implemented a new law to stop this cycle of abuse for good. Other states should do the same.

The Utah law prohibits government entities from charging endless late fees and interest on unpaid fines. Now, an agency can only impose fees up to 25% of the initial fine amount.

This is an excellent first step to ensure citizens aren’t burdened with unnecessary debt, while still allowing government to hold people accountable for failing to pay their debts on time. Without restraints, escalating fines (and their criminal consequences) bar too many Americans from upward economic mobility.

Consider the case of Leah Jackson.

In 2014, she had just started a new job in Minnesota when police issued her a ticket for turning left on a red light. She hadn’t received her first paycheck and therefore couldn’t afford the $135 fine. A few months later, an officer cited her with a $200 fine for driving without a valid license. Jackson didn’t realize it until then, but the state had taken her driving privileges away for failing to pay her first fine.

Jackson did what most of us would likely do — she continued to drive because she had to get to work to help pay the fines. This resulted in two more additional citations. Despite her inability to pay for the debt she was accumulating, the tickets grew, with interest, fees, and surcharges, totaling up to an absurd $13,000.

Jackson’s case is preposterous, but it is far from the most severe.

A judge sentenced Harriet Cleveland of Montgomery, Alabama, to 31 days in jail after she failed to keep up with her traffic ticket payments. The city used a private service that charged $40 every time she paid, and even after losing her car to a title loan company to stay afloat, she could no longer afford to pay. Police arrested her and took her to jail, where she stayed for two weeks.

When the government imposes interest charges on individuals already struggling to pay the initial fine, it’s a lose-lose situation.

Late fees decrease the chances they can pay the fine, which can lead to license suspension and even jail time. These added punishments do a disservice to those already struggling financially and are costly for states to enforce. But many states rely on fines and fees as a major revenue source. This creates a perverse incentive that relies on people breaking the law — a breeding ground for civic distrust.

There’s reform on the horizon, however.

Beyond Utah’s large step in the right direction, other states have enacted welcome reforms to address the issue. California, Idaho, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, and Virginia have stopped suspending driver licenses for failure to pay fines, recognizing that restricting access to reliable transportation only hurts peoples’ ability to pay their debts.

This is an excellent measure that other states should follow, but it’s not enough to fully address the problem. Even with a license intact, ballooning debt due to failure to pay a fine on time is still a problem that disproportionately affects low-income people, and it can still result in a modern-day debtors’ prison situation.

For those living paycheck to paycheck, the ability to drive to work is the difference between just getting by and becoming homeless. The current system of limitless late fees and interest harms the disadvantaged and sets them up for failure. This isn’t justice, it’s a systematic failure that state governments have a duty to correct.

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