Tuesday, August 23, 2016

ACLU fights return of debtors' prisons; plans suit in Arkansas

Posted By on Tue, Aug 23, 2016 at 7:40 AM

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The ACLU of Arkansas says it will announce a lawsuit this morning on "criminalization of poverty."

No details provided, but the ACLU nationally is in the midst of a broad project fighting the jailing of people for legal debts they are unable to pay — a practice that the ACLU argues amounts to unconstitutional debtors' prison. The ACLU says:

Debtors' prisons impose devastating human costs. They lead to coercive debt collection, forcing poor people to forgo the basic necessities of life in order to avoid arrest and jailing. Debtors' prisons waste taxpayer money and resources by jailing people who may never be able to pay their debts. This imposes direct costs on the government and further destabilizes the lives of poor people struggling to pay their debts and leave the criminal justice system behind. And most troubling, debtors' prisons create a racially-skewed, two-tiered system of justice in which the poor receive harsher, longer punishments for committing the same crimes as the rich, simply because they are poor.

Ultimately, debtors' prisons are not only unfair and insensible, they are also illegal. Imprisoning someone because she cannot afford to pay court-imposed fines or fees violates the Fourteenth Amendment promises of due process and equal protection under the law.
The ACLU already has legal action in progress in eight other states. 

I await with interest the specific case. I'd like to learn it involves an issue the Jonesboro Sun has reported on the fining and jailing of people arrested for being drunk, insane or disorderly. In practice, this put many mentally ill people in jail. Legal Aid and others argued that mentally ill people should be handled in a civil commitment proceeding, not made criminals. The Sun reported numerous cases of arrests of people with mental problems who were fined and then faced jail to face fines imposed for the arrests. Ultimately, the reporting led to the end of a practice in district court that had been questioned.

When judges agreed to no longer fine people who were mentally ill, the Sun reported:

A state Freedom of Information Act request by The Sun disclosed 352 cases of people being accused of violating the drunken, insane or disorderly (DID) law in the 2011-2015 period. Since 2011, $24,914.38 in fines were assessed in those cases. Court costs in those cases totaled $27,300.
But apart from this, there remains the broader question of jailing people for fines they are unable to pay.

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