Nearly two centuries after United States Congress outlawed the use of debtor's prisons and almost 50 years since the U.S. Supreme court reinforced the federal law, many states are still finding ways to jail the poor for their inability or failure to pay court-imposed fees and fines.
Now Texas, a state that incarcerates more people than any other for failure to pay fines and traffic tickets, is considering joining a handful of states in requiring judges to offer alternatives to jail time, such as community service, payment plans or waivers. Colorado, Georgia, New Hampshire and Washington State recently have passed legislation meant to reinforce the ban on so-called debtor's prisons.
In Washington in recent years, 12-percent interest is imposed from the time judgement is made until all fines and fees are paid. For someone already experiencing financial hardship, the debt is almost impossible to repay even if they make regular, monthly payments. According to a 2015 article produced by The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization, 25 percent of people jailed Benton County, Wash. are incarcerated over their failure or inability to pay these fines and fees.
In the Lone Star State, about 95 percent of warrants issued in 2016 were for fine-related offenses, according to the Texas Judicial Council, the policy-making body for the state judiciary. Last year the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas conducted a review of more than 750 municipal courts. The organization looked at courts that resolved at least 100 cases over the course of the year. Of those cases, judges opted to sentence defendants to community service 0.2 percent of the time. In addition, more than half the judges refused to waive all or part of the fees and fines for defendants living in poverty. Under the bipartisan Texas legislation, judges would be required, in open court, to ask a defendant about his or her ability to pay a fee, fine or ticket and offer alternative options to those who cannot afford to pay.
In addition to jailing for failure to pay fines and fees after being found guilty of criminal activities, people can be jailed for failing to pay private debt, including credit cards, medical bills, car payments rent and utilities and long- and short-term loans. If the debtor fails to show up in civil court, they could be charged with contempt and arrested.
Regardless of the circumstances, everyone deserves the best defense. If you have been arrested or are facing criminal charges, call the Seattle law office of Steve Karimi at (206) 621-8777 or contact him online.