The ‘War on Poverty’ has become ‘The War on the Poor’

Debtor’s prisons consisting of people sent to jail because they were too poor to pay fines were common in the 18th century. Charles Dickens’s father was someone who was sent to a debtor’s prison and his shame over this is said to have been a significant influence in his crusade against the way that poor people were treated. Such prisons were outlawed in the UK in 1869.

In the US, imprisonment for nonpayment of debts under federal law was abolished in 1833 but states were allowed to continue the practice until the US Supreme Court, in a series of three rulings from 1970 to the case of Bearden v. Georgia in 1983, unanimously ruled that it was unconstitutional to imprison someone for the inability to pay a fine, though people who could pay but willfully refused to do so could be sent to jail.

But NPR has had a good series of reports this week by Joseph Shapiro that although such prisons are no longer allowed in theory, in practice they have made a roaring comeback. What happens is that the criminal justice system has added on a whole set of fees like court costs and legal fees for lawyers that people have to pay in addition to the fine that the original offense generated, and all that can add up to thousands of dollars, so much so that the original fine could form just a small fraction of the total. Then when people cannot pay the fees, they are sent to jail. These fees are a lucrative source of revenue for the courts system.

NPR looked at courts around the country and found in the three decades since Bearden, there’s been an explosion in the use of fines and fees. Services long considered free now carry a charge, sometimes hundreds of dollars. NPR reviewed the laws in 50 states. Forty-three states now allow people to be charged for their public defender. When someone goes to jail, they can be charged room and board in 41 states.

When they’re assigned a probation or parole officer, in 44 states they can be charged for that too. We also found wide variation in how judges determine who’s too poor to pay, and so every day, all around the country, poor people go to jail because they can’t come up with the money.

I was shocked by another story that Shapiro did that said that people are charged fees for the use of the public defender. I had assumed that that was free since those legal services were provided to people who could not afford to hire a private lawyer. But it turns out that since the states underfund the public defenders offices, even some of them support these fees in order to be able to keep their offices open.

And it does not stop there. Some states also charge prisoners for the cost of their prison stay so that when they emerge, they are in even greater debt than when they went in. Shapiro had another story this morning of an unemployed man Kyle DeWitt who caught the wrong kind of fish out of season. He thought it was a rock bass that was in season but it actually was a small-mouth bass which was out of season. But because he couldn’t pay the fine and the fees, he was sent to jail and then added to that he was charged for the cost of room and board in jail. All because of one lousy fish.

And some, like Kyle Papa, are sent to jail even if it means they lose their jobs because of it, and making their chances of repayment even less likely.

Danny Bearden, whose case in 1983 supposedly outlawed debtor’s prisons, says he is not surprised by stories like this because he sees it all the time.

Thirty-one years after his Supreme Court victory, Bearden is a supervisor at a small textile plant in rural Georgia.

He sees people — his co-workers, his neighbors, his friends — get charged for things like driving offenses. Only now, he says, fines and fees add up to thousands of dollars.

“These are poor people, OK? They got families and everything like that,” he says. They work a job. And even when they get behind in trying to pay, they go to jail.”

And on the other side, yesterday we see the Attorney General Eric Holder boasting once again that it is fining a big bank, this time it is Credit Suisse, for fraud.

“The bank went to elaborate lengths to shield itself, its employees, and the tax cheats it served from accountability for their criminal actions. They subverted disclosure requirements, destroyed bank records, and concealed transactions involving undeclared accounts by limiting withdrawal amounts and using offshore credit and debit cards to repatriate funds. They failed to take even the most basic steps to ensure compliance with tax laws,” said Holder.

Note that there is no mention of the people who were doing all these terrible things. Holder speaks as if ‘the bank’ is an autonomous entity, acting independently of the people running it. As usual, no rich people are going to jail for these massive crimes, though for the first time they got the bank to admit to wrongdoing, a small advance.

And meanwhile, we see that the Koch brothers are trying to derail a proposed deal that would save at least part of the pensions of Detroit’s retirees. Because god forbid that ordinary people should not have to worry about their old age.

We now have a full-scale war on the poor going on.


  1. Crimson Clupeidae says

    “We now have a full-scale war on the poor going on.”

    …and it’s going much better than the war on drugs!

    It took a few decades to start legalizing drugs. I figure somewhere around mid-2040, we’ll legalize being poor…..

  2. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    Debtor’s prisons consisting of people sent to jail because they were too poor to pay fines were common in the 18th century.

    That wasn’t often the case, in fact. A sentence of a fine or a fixed term of imprisonment was usual for criminal offences. Debtors’ prisons were usually for people who owed money on private debts- Dickens’s father owed money to a grocer, for example. They also made other contributions to English literature: Smollett’s heroes regularly end up in debtors’ prisons and John Cleland wrote Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure– better known as Fanny Hill– to pay off his debts while imprisoned for debt and was given a government pension for not writing any more novels,

  3. dannorth says

    When I was a kid a Montreal comic troop made a joke about a guy who after hearing about the war against poverty threw a grenade at a poor person.

    It was meant as a joke back then.

  4. Numenaster says

    Note that there is no mention of the people who were doing all these terrible things. Holder speaks as if ‘the bank’ is an autonomous entity,…

    Well, corporations ARE people, after all.

  5. Storms says

    Then lets go full smash. Put the company in prison – freeze the assets and accounts, lock the doors and deny them the right to perform business for a several weeks. That’s the equivalent of putting a poor-working person in jail for not paying debts. People would be much cagier about putting their money with an institution that could be randomly closed and the institutions would have to provide ‘malfeasance insurance’ to attract customers.

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