Two reports published by NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reveal a rising trend of patently unconstitutional practices in cash-strapped states, where a growing number of impoverished people are jailed for being unable to pay their legal fees – including charges for use of public defenders, a guaranteed right in the United States. The resurgence of these draconian “debtors’ prisons” has been documented in at least 13 of the 15 states with the largest prison populations in the country, including California, Arizona, Michigan and Alabama.
“Incarcerating people simply because they cannot afford to pay their legal debts is not only unconstitutional but also has a devastating impact upon men and women whose only crime is that they are poor,” said ACLU senior staff attorney Eric Balaban.
Many states view the fees as a method for helping to alleviate budget deficits. In New Orleans, Louisiana, legal fines comprise almost two-thirds of criminal courts’ operating budgets. But the ACLU found in its report, “In for a Penny: The Rise of America’s New Debtors’ Prisons,” that jailing individuals for failing to pay legal fees actually places the financial burden on the state, wasting taxpayer money and resources to keep those individuals in jail or on public welfare as they struggle to pay their overwhelming debts.
Our Future in Chains: The For-Profit Debtors’ Prison System