Debtors Prisons Here?


Debtors prisons in the U.S.? Surely not.

Yet investigations by NPR say that courts nationwide are sending the indigent to prison because they can’t pay court fines. Click here for a story by NPR’s Joseph Shapiro.

Surely not in Princeton.

But I saw how it might possibly, just maybe, happen. Last year I went to traffic court and watched people present their sad stories to the judge. “Pay your fine before the end of the day,” was the threat, “or you go to jail.” No money? no credit card? “Call some friends,” was the advice.

I didn’t stick around until the end of the day to see if anybody ended up in the hoosegow. And traffic court judges probably do need to use harsh threats for deadbeats. They are within their rights to do that. According to NPR, it is left up to the judge to figure out who has the money to pay and who is just crying poor.

So small a matter as a speeding ticket or a parking ticket is no problem for me, but could be a very big problem for someone struggling to pay rent. If you could pay your parking ticket right away, your court costs didn’t double. If you could pay a lawyer, you might get the traffic ticket charges reduced. If you couldn’t, you might lose your job because you can’t drive.

A judge in a Philadelphia suburb, according to WHYY Newsworks reporter Emma Jacobs, is unfairly targeting the poor , sending people directly to jail without the opportunity to get a lawyer. Click here for the story.

I don’t know whether our local judges — in Princeton, in Mercer County, in New Jersey — are sending vast numbers of people to jail for their inability to pay traffic court costs. I don’t know that any of our judges are making prejudiced decisions. (Full disclosure: Through Not in Our Town Princeton, I support the Princeton/Trenton campaign against what was labeled The New Jim Crow by Michele Alexander. Statistics show that black people go to jail for offenses for which whites go free.)

I do know that on that day in traffic court, the drivers of color were the ones having trouble paying the fines. The judge was not going easier on the white drivers — it was a classic case of the “rich get richer and the poor get poorer. ”

At least New Jersey does not charge its inmates for room and board. Click here for a state by state survey of fees.

NPR continues its coverage this week in Morning Edition and All Thing Considered.

(Image:  mid-Victorian depiction of the debtors prison at St Briavel Castle courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)





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