DoJ Deals Massive Blow to Debtors’ Prisons, Poor People Can’t be Held When They Can’t Afford Bail

bailBy Justin Gardner

Last Thursday, the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) made the shocking statement that it will no longer use private prisons to incarcerate federal prisoners, saying they are less safe and less effective than government-run facilities.

This was welcome news for those who realize that for-profit prisons contribute to the problem of mass incarceration, but the feds still need to address the glaring issue of jailing people for victimless crimes such as drug use.

The effects on the prison-industrial complex were immediate, as stock values crashed for the Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group. Now, another DoJ ruling has the for-profit prison system reeling.

For the first time, the DoJ said in a federal appeals court that defendants cannot be held in jail solely because they can’t afford to pay bail.

“Bail practices that incarcerate indigent individuals before trial solely because of their inability to pay for their release violate the Fourteenth Amendment,” the agency said in an amicus brief. Not accounting for indigence results in “the unnecessary incarceration of numerous individuals who are presumed innocent.”

The move could strike a serious blow to the practice of debtors’ prisons, where local court systems prey on the populace by arresting and jailing poor people for failing to pay legal debts they can’t afford. This causes a vicious cycle of mounting debts from which people cannot escape.

Municipal courts establish contracts with private probation companies that harass indigent defendants for fines and fees. The practice of money bail has risen dramatically since 1990, part of a general trend of privatizing and profiting from every facet of the jail system.

In fact, the DoJ issued guidelines back in March that detailed several of these practices in the “criminalization of poverty.” They said municipal courts:

Must not jail a person for nonpayment of fines or fees without first conducting an indigency determination and establishing that the failure to pay was willful.

Must consider alternatives to jail for indigent defendants unable to pay fines and fees.

Must not condition access to a judicial hearing on the prepayment of fines or fees.



Must provide meaningful notice and, in appropriate cases, a lawyer, when enforcing fines and fees.

Must not use arrest warrants or license suspensions as a means of coercing the payment of court debt when individuals have not been afforded constitutionally adequate procedural protections.

Must not employ bail or bond practices that cause indigent defendants to remain jailed solely because they cannot afford to pay for their release.

Must safeguard against unconstitutional practices by court staff and private contractors.


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Alabama has been at the center of controversy, where private probation companies and several cities have been particularly ruthless in criminalizing and harassing poor people on the basis of simple fines and fees.

One county circuit judge explicitly called their situation a “debtors’ prison” and “judicially sanctioned extortion racket.”

Keeping people locked up because they can’t afford to pay bail as little as $160 actually contributes to the chances of dying in jail.

Many of the more than 800 jail deaths logged by The Huffington Post between July 2015 and July 2016 involved individuals who were incarcerated after being arrested for minor offenses and who were unable to afford their bail.

Naturally, the American Bail Association says that protecting the indigent from being held in a cage because they can’t afford bail is an “extreme position.” They insist that money bail is a “Liberty-Promoting Institution As Old As The Republic.”

As awareness grows about the sickening predation of poor people by a prison-industrial complex run amok, it appears the federal government is being forced to address the issue. Time will tell whether the DoJ court brief will have an impact on municipal courts violating civil liberties to pad their budgets and enrich their buddies in the bail business.

Justin Gardner writes for TheFreeThoughtProject.com, where this article first appeared.


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14 Comments on "DoJ Deals Massive Blow to Debtors’ Prisons, Poor People Can’t be Held When They Can’t Afford Bail"

  1. Why is the court citing the 14th Amendment? The 8th Amendment plainly says: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed…”

    If a person cannot make bail, it’s excessive. Bail is supposed to be high enough that a person would not want to forfeit it, but not so high that the person cannot possibly make it. A 5th grader should be able to figure this out. Why have our courts struggled with this for so long? Are they incompetent, or do they serve other masters?

  2. The most amazing aspect of this scenario is that it actually happened. Cannot remember the last time a decision from the machinery was in keeping with the law.
    My inner cynic is nudging-indicating this might be more of an internecine power struggle than a desire to to right by people but for the time being, I’ll put that on ignore.
    After all, we have to our victories how and where we can.

    • I suspect the DOJ is just throwing us a couple bones

      • They are afraid of rebellion as has been taking place in Ferguson and Flint. It’s one thing to make super profits another to jeopardize your existence as the Ruling Elite. It’s like the Vietnam War, the 1% was making record hands over fist profits, but as middle class Americans were protesting and no longer willing to sacrifice their children for the profits of the 1%, the 1% took their profits, ended the war and moved on to find other alternatives to create super profits on the backs of the Workers.

      • I suspect you’re correct.
        Several years ago a friend of mine compiled the wins/losses between nationally reported disagreements between the citizens at large and the PTB. (Think Bundy ranch, eminent domain, socialized medicine,etc)

        The result according to his metric was 1 in 20, or 5%, of these battles resulted in a win for the populace. Ergo, 95% of policies whose end result would damage our countrymen’s physical or economic liberty were implemented.

        Further, the 5% may be exactly what you posited which triggered this memory I’m now writing. The ‘bone’ if you will.
        Naturally the bone allows folks to believe they actually have influence or sway over what are, in effect, simply edicts. Somehow 100% dictatorial policies by a monarch is slavery whereas 95% is freedom and representative democracy.

    • We’re thinking your ‘inner cynic’ is right. Trust your gut instinct.

    • The DOJ made an unbid contract with a private prison operator.

      The operator gets one billion dollars irrespective of occupancy rate.

      So fewer prisoners means more profits.

      Look at previous articles at the Activist Post.

      14/88

  3. All crimes boil down to how much you have and will give up. Well not the above the Rule of Law folks in DeCeit.Just ask the broken snake, coke head the dems are offering up.
    The Department of jewstice is another pick pocket agency designed to keep the commoner from having anything.

  4. Are there government run prisons?

  5. Wow…what do you know…something they’ve done that I actually agree with. Wonder’s never cease…although what took them so long seems appropriate too.

  6. They need to make as much room as possible!

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