FACE OF AN ECONOMY: U.S.: Debtors’ prison

A Journal of People report

[EDITORIAL NOTE: To Journal of People, information/facts are important than comments appearing sharp, but haphazard. Information/facts help to learn. And, learning about capitalism, and systems and tricks of exploitation helps dissect and discard the systems and tricks. That’s the reason JoP tries to present facts/information.]

Nearly two centuries ago, the U.S. formally abolished the incarceration of people who failed to pay off debts. Yet, recent years have witnessed the rise of modern-day debtors’ prisons — the arrest and jailing of poor people for failure to pay legal debts they can never hope to afford, through criminal justice procedures that violate their most basic rights.

The ACLU and ACLU affiliates across the country have been exposing and challenging modern-day debtors’ prisons across the country

A “Modern day debtors prison? Mississippi makes people work to pay off debt” headlined USA TODAY report on January 9, 2020 said about a poor woman:

“During her shifts at a Church’s Chicken, Annita Husband looked like the other employees. She wore the same blue and red polo shirt, greeted the same customers, and slung the same fried chicken and biscuits.

“But after clocking out, Husband, a mother in her 40s, had to wait for a white van with barred windows and the seal of the Mississippi Department of Corrections on its sides. It delivered her to the Flowood Restitution Center, a motel converted into a jail surrounded by razor wire, nestled among truck stops and an outlet mall. Here, Husband slept in a room with seven other women, sharing a mirror to get ready in the mornings, enduring strip searches for contraband at night.

“A judge sentenced Husband to the restitution center in 2015 to pay off almost $13,000 she owed from an embezzlement conviction in 2009. The corrections department would not release her until she earned enough money at her $7.25-an-hour part-time job to clear her debts and cover $11 a day for ‘room and board’ at Flowood.

“‘If I wasn’t at work, I was in prison,’ Husband said.

“The corrections department took her paychecks, she said, giving her back just $10 a week — all in quarters — so she could buy things like soap and deodorant.

“The State of Mississippi had locked Husband into a modern-day debtors prison. She had other plans.

“Annita Husband entered the restitution center in 2015, six years after pleading guilty to embezzlement, because she struggled to pay $255 to her probation officer and the courts. She feared she would spend years at the center trying to pay off her debts.”

The USA Today report said:

“Mississippi appears to be the only state where judges lock people up for an indefinite time while they work to earn money to pay off court-ordered debts. While there is no comprehensive data, legal experts who study fines, fees and restitution say Mississippi is unusual at the very least.

“‘We don’t know of any other states that have a program quite like Mississippi’s,’ said Sharon Brett, a senior staff attorney with Harvard’s Criminal Justice Policy Program.

“A handful of states experimented with restitution programs starting in the 1970s, but abandoned them as expensive and ineffective.

“Not Mississippi. Judges have sentenced hundreds of people a year to four restitution centers around the state, almost always ordering the inmates to stay until they pay off court fees, fines and restitution to victims, according to four years of government records analyzed by Mississippi Today and The Marshall Project.

“People sent to the centers had been sentenced for felonies but didn’t commit violent crimes, according to the program rules. When we tracked down the cases of more than 200 people confined there on January 1, 2019, we found that most originally got suspended sentences, meaning they did not have to go to prison.

“They didn’t usually owe a lot of money. Half the people living in the centers had debts of less than $3,515. One owed just $656.50. Though in arrears on fines and court fees, many didn’t need to pay restitution at all — at least 20 percent of them were convicted of drug possession.

“But inmates spent an average of nearly four months — and up to five years — at the centers, working for private employers to earn enough to satisfy the courts. Meanwhile their costs continued to balloon, since as they had to pay for room and board, transportation to their jobs, and medical care.

“They didn’t get paid much. Between 2016 and 2018, workers at the centers made an average of  $6.76 an hour in take home pay, according to our analysis of state data.

A dark place

The report said:

“During a nine-month stay at the Flowood Restitution Center starting in September 2018, Dixie D’Angelo worked four different restaurant jobs trying to pay down over $5,000 she owed for damaging a friend’s car. She said she struggled with depression and anxiety and got no treatment for her alcoholism. ‘I was in a really, really dark place,’ she said.”

Debtors prisons

The report said:

“It’s a futile system that penalizes the poorest residents of the poorest state in the country, said Cliff Johnson, director of the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi.

“‘Debtors prisons are an effective way of collecting money—as is kidnapping,’ he said. ‘But there are constitutional, public policy and moral barriers to such a regime.’

“Many states are reconsidering the practice of jailing the poor, especially because of its inordinate impact on people of color. Since 2018, Mississippi has required judges to find that people willfully failed to make court-ordered payments before sending them to jail or prison.

“But that hasn’t affected the number of people entering Mississippi’s restitution-center program, which our reporting shows mostly affects those on probation for low-level offenses related to drug addiction or poverty.

“Mississippi Today reviewed hundreds of documents, spoke with more than 50 current and former restitution-center inmates and interviewed legal experts over the course of 14 months.

“Our investigation with The Marshall Project found:

  • Black people are overrepresented at restitution centers, accounting for 49% of inmates, compared with 38% of the state population, according to our analysis of center data for January 2019. More than 60% of people in prison in Mississippi are black.
  • The work-camp inmates are forced into low-wage, sometimes dangerous jobs, such as slaughtering chickens or gutting catfish at processing plants. Private citizens hire them to work as handymen and landscapers at their homes.
  • When inmates can’t get jobs, sometimes for medical reasons, they sit in the centers, accruing $330 a month in room and board costs. Some of them say the centers don’t offer programs to deal with addiction or earn high-school diplomas.
  • Just a quarter of all money earned by the inmates went to pay restitution, with the remainder going to the corrections department and the courts, according to state data from July 2014 through June 2018. In some cases, the courts added unrelated debts, such as child support. One man’s charge for meth possession turned into debt totaling $72,500.
  • Inaccurate and confusing record-keeping by the state makes it hard for inmates to know if they are making progress toward paying off their debts and how soon they might be eligible for release.

“The Mississippi Department of Corrections repeatedly declined our requests to visit the restitution centers and to discuss them with state officials. But in a statement issued in late December in response to our findings, the department noted that it follows state law when operating the restitution program.

“Emphasizing that judges are in charge of sending people to the centers, the statement says the program ‘provides an alternative to incarceration for minimal risk offenders by facilitating their transition to the community.’

“‘While individuals in this program are required to work, the MDOC does not force them to work,’ the statement said. ‘The MDOC merely assists them in finding employment.’”

Darrell Bridges says he earned almost $2,000 working at Checkers during his stint in the Pascagoula Restitution Center in 2013. But the money was never applied to the $3,403 debt he owed from an attempted robbery when he was 17, records show. He still wonders what happened to his money.

The report added:

“The state has a long history of forcing prisoners — especially black men — to work. After slavery was abolished, Mississippi leased a soaring number of prisoners to private industry. Public outcry over deaths and mistreatment forced the state to end that program in 1890. Mississippi then founded the state penitentiary known as Parchman Farm, which was modeled after a slave plantation. It still houses over 3,000 of the state’s 21,000 prisoners.

“The restitution-center program has unfortunate parallels with Mississippi’s past, said Alex Lichtenstein, a historian who has written a book on convict leasing in the South. ‘It’s a form of penal labor, there’s no question about it.’

“Today, employers benefit from access to cheap and reliable labor from the restitution program. ‘If it weren’t for the restitution center, I would seriously have trouble running my business,’ said Barry Porter, the owner of a Sonic Drive-In near Jackson. Several inmates described him as a fair and accommodating boss.

“Some judges say the program helps those sentenced to it. Charles Webster, a circuit judge in Clarksdale, said that the program teaches them about responsibility by requiring them to show up for work and meet financial obligations. He had sentenced two of the people in the centers in January 2019.

“‘Going to the restitution center’s better than going to prison, I would think,’ he said.”

‘Basically in prison’

The report said:

“One June morning in 2007, while Husband worked at a payday loan store near Biloxi on the Gulf Coast, she looked at a surveillance monitor and watched as the dealership repossessed her white Chevrolet Suburban.

“Like many of her clients, Husband lived paycheck to paycheck. Supporting three sons and her injured spouse on her own, she had fallen behind on making her monthly payments.

“To get the truck back, she began creating fake loans, pocketing about $11,000 in cash from her employer, Money Now. Several weeks later, an internal audit uncovered the scheme. Husband, who in the past was convicted of writing bad checks and of stealing $300 from Sears, pleaded guilty to embezzlement. She was sentenced to seven years in prison.

“But the judge allowed her to serve five years of probation instead as long as she paid $50 a month to the corrections department for monitoring her, plus $200 a month toward her fines, fees and restitution.

“Over the years, she struggled to keep up with the payments as she worked at mostly low-paying housekeeping jobs at hotels and cared for her husband until he died in 2009. She said her probation officers threatened her: ‘“Next time you come in and you don’t have any money, you’re going to jail.”’

“Fearing she would be thrown in prison for nonpayment, she stopped reporting.

“This led to a cycle of probation violations that landed Husband in jail for weeks and on house arrest in 2011. In 2015, she was back in court again. When she explained her fears of being imprisoned for failing to pay, the judge replied, ‘That’s no excuse for not reporting to your probation officer where they can keep up with you.’

“Judge Roger T. Clark told Husband she had to ‘attend and successfully complete the restitution center program’ at Flowood, according to the hearing transcript. But the court order he signed spelled out something more: She had to stay until she paid her $12,685.50 balance — restitution, fines and fees — with the court.

“The restitution center was 170 miles from her home in Biloxi. When Husband arrived at the work camp in May 2015, she called one of her sons to let him know she had made it.

“‘He said, “Happy Mother’s Day,”’ Husband said. ‘It was just so hurtful, because here I am, basically in prison.’”

Unusual and onerous

The USA Today report said:

“Judges are at the heart of the system. Three judges accounted for almost a third of the people at the restitution centers in January 2019. Clark and a colleague also on the coast, Judge Christopher Schmidt, declined to comment. Judge Dal Williamson, of Jones County in South Mississippi, said he typically sends people to the restitution center when they have refused to pay their debts. ‘And you’ve got a victim out there that needs to be made whole.’

“It’s the sentences — for a dollar amount rather than a period of time — that make the restitution center program so unusual, and so onerous, inmates and experts agree.

“Our review of orders for more than 200 people revealed that judges sent about 80 percent to a center for violating the terms of their probation. In 16 orders, the only violation listed was the defendant’s failure to pay.

“Almost all of the inmates were given a specific amount of money they must earn before their release. In 15 cases we found, the judges sentenced defendants to the restitution centers for an amount of money and a time limit of 90 days to three years.”

Travis Tanksley, who is a part of the Mississippi Department of Corrections’ restitution center program, looks for a customer’s processed order while working at BB’s Meat Processing in Greenwood, Miss., Monday, February 11, 2019. Travis Tanksley, who is a part of the Mississippi Department of Corrections’ restitution center program, looks for a customer’s processed order while working at BB’s Meat Processing in Greenwood, Miss., Monday, February 11, 2019.

‘Residents’ treated like prisoners

The report said:

“While Husband was at the restitution center, the state didn’t call her an inmate (it uses the word ‘resident’), and she did not have to wear a striped prison uniform. Flowood does house women finishing prison sentences who perform community service for government agencies and local charities.

“But Husband and the 36 other women at the Flowood restitution center at the time slept on the same prison-issued mattresses, ate the same food, and had to follow most of the same restrictions as the other prisoners.

“Even when they’re at work, restitution program inmates are not allowed to see friends or family, talk on the phone or smoke cigarettes. At the centers, they are assigned chores — Husband said she cleaned the center’s vans and washed dishes after meals.

“Like others, she had no idea how much money she was accumulating or how long it would take to pay her way out. Inmates can get printouts showing debits and credits in their accounts, which the state calls a monthly balance sheet. But they find the information hard to interpret.

“Husband said she couldn’t stop thinking about someone she met who had been in the center for two years, trying to pay off $2,000. She began plotting her escape.”

‘I got to get out of here’

It added:

“‘On July 9, 2015, Husband got up before the other women in her room, she said. She put on jeans and a white Nike T-shirt under her Church’s Chicken uniform. She called the restaurant to tell her supervisors she would be taking the day off.

“Husband rode with other residents in the back of a white prison van from the Flowood compound until they reached the Church’s Chicken. It’s at Jackson’s Freedom Corner, a civil rights landmark honoring the intersection of Martin Luther King Drive and Medgar Evers Boulevard.

“The van dropped her off before the restaurant opened. Husband asked a coworker to drive her to downtown Jackson. She had already exchanged her quarters for $5 bills that she smuggled into the center by rolling them tight in her ponytail. Now, she used that cash to buy a ticket at the Greyhound station.

“Then she hopped on the first bus headed down to the coast — and home. She was one of roughly 70 people who ran away from the restitution centers each year between 2015 and 2017, according to state data.

“‘I wasn’t even thinking about those fines anymore,’ she said. ‘I was just thinking about, “I got to get out of here.”’

Gaylia Mills needed to earn $2,893 at her Sonic Drive-In gig to get out of the Flowood Restitution Center, where she had been sent in 2018 for violating the terms of her probation on a drug possession charge. A guard stole $660 of her earnings, according to court documents.“Not knowing when you’re coming home is the worst part,” she said.

Restitution rarely received

“Two months after Husband escaped, the corrections department sent $1,179 to the Harrison County court. At the rate she was earning money, Husband would have spent more than a year and a half in the restitution center working to pay off her debts, according to our analysis of her earnings reports.

“As an inmate makes money, the corrections department takes the first cut in room and board, then usually holds the remaining earnings until there’s enough to pay the entire debt. When someone leaves the program, the corrections department sends their earnings to the court to cover its costs. It distributes the rest to victims, then to pay criminal fines.

“In Husband’s case, the payday lender she stole from received just over $600 in restitution according to county records. Paul Goldman, who runs Money Now, told Mississippi Today that he rarely receives restitution when he deals with worker embezzlement at one of his family business’s two dozen locations.

“Without repayment, Goldman said, he wants to see those employees locked up. ‘Just for the sake of justice.’

Flowood Restitution Center in Flowood, Mississippi.

Punished for being poor

“About six months after Husband left Flowood, officers found her when a son crashed her car and, not knowing she was evading law enforcement, gave them her address, she said.

“A judge sentenced her to her original prison term. She spent almost 10 months at Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in rural Rankin County.

“That’s about half as long as she would have spent at the restitution center.

“In the years after she left prison, Husband said, she met with her parole officer each month and paid what she could, usually $20 a visit. She still owed more than $10,000 when she finished parole in September, more than a decade after she was first sentenced for her crime. Husband’s criminal case is closed.

“Now 52, Husband lives in a small apartment surrounded by palm trees. She works two jobs as a hotel housekeeper, she said, earning about $25,000 a year for 55 to 60 hours of work every week.

“Looking back, Husband says she was punished for being poor, saddled with debts she could never repay. She calls her time in prison bittersweet. She felt embarrassed to be there, but relieved to know that when she got out, she would be finished with her punishment at last.

“In the restitution center, ‘You’re there without an end. You do not know when you’re getting out, when you’re going to be finished,’ she said. ‘That’s torture.’”

About the project: Two reporters from Mississippi Today spent 14 months interviewing more than 50 current and former restitution-center inmates and a dozen national experts. We also filed 30 public records requests and, with The Marshall Project, analyzed state data and more than 200 sentencing orders. While the Mississippi Department of Corrections and most judges we contacted denied our repeated interview requests, we relied on hundreds of pages of court documents, hearing transcripts and policy manuals to corroborate inmates’ stories.

This article originally appeared on Mississippi Clarion Ledger: Debtors prison: Miss. still sends people to jail for unpaid debt

This was not the only report on the issue. The Atlantic ran a report on February 23, 2016. The “Debtors’ Prison in 21st-Century America” headlined report said:

“For failing to pay parking tickets, court fees, and other petty municipal citations, black residents of Greater St. Louis are ending up behind bars.”

It said:

“In 1846, Dred Scott began his infamous legal battle in what is now called the ‘Old Courthouse’ in downtown St. Louis. Scott had traveled with his master from Missouri to Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory, neither of which recognized slavery. Having lived for an extended period in free territory, Scott argued that state law supported his claim to freedom. But the Missouri Supreme Court disagreed. The court’s message to Scott was clear: Perhaps you can live freely elsewhere, but not here.

“More than a century and a half later, the St. Louis region continues to distinguish itself as one that is hostile to its poor black residents. Since the killing of Michael Brown in August of 2014, St. Louis and its neighboring municipalities have been frequently cited for legal and moral failings in the region’s municipal justice system. A report released by the Department of Justice last year profiled these failings in great detail, as did a white paper released by the local nonprofit law firm ArchCity Defenders in 2014. (Blake Strode, one of the coauthors of this story, is currently on staff at ArchCity Defenders.)

“More recently, the Department of Justice filed suit against the City of Ferguson after the city council rejected a proposed settlement that sought to bring reforms to the police department and municipal court. The lawsuit outlines myriad constitutional civil-rights claims ranging from violations of Equal Protection and Due Process to patterns of unlawful arrest and excessive force. Some of these claims focus on the city’s court, detention, and bail practices, claims similar to those already pending against Ferguson in a class-action lawsuit filed last year by ArchCity Defenders, St. Louis University Law Clinic, and the civil-rights organization Equal Justice Under Law.

“In announcing the decision to sue Ferguson, Attorney General Loretta Lynch stated that the residents of Ferguson ‘have waited decades for justice. They should not be forced to wait any longer.’ This was a powerful statement by the nation’s chief legal official, and one that should extend far beyond the city limits of Ferguson.”

The report said:

“As the recent deluge of reports and litigation confirms, and many have long known, thousands of people throughout the St. Louis metropolitan area are routinely sent to jail because they cannot pay local court fines and fees. These people are poor, and they tend to be black. While there are many terms to describe this — including, importantly, unconstitutional — there is one with historical resonance reserved for such a practice: debtors’ prison.

“Historically, the phrase debtors’ prison refers to any detention facility in which people are incarcerated for their failure to pay a debt. Today, the ‘debts’ that lead to incarceration take the form of monetary penalties established and enforced by municipal courts. For many people throughout the St. Louis region, the nightmare of debtors’ prison is a recurring one: Each time a payment or court date is missed, the court issues another warrant, and the individual is subject to arrest, jail, and additional fines and court fees.

“Despite prior attempts on the federal level and across the country to prevent the profound injustice of locking people in cages because they are too poor to pay a debt, the practice persists every day. The racially segregated landscape of the St. Louis metropolitan area, and the prevalence of racially homogenous debtors’ prisons within its borders, are not a coincidence.

“The region’s troubled present speaks with startling precision to a dark past. In this sense, the region’s debtors’ prisons are perhaps best understood as a predictable eventuality, the result of a complex matrix of public policies and historical racial subjugation that continues to corrupt the local administration of justice. One need not believe in grand conspiracies to draw a direct line from the stark realities of contemporary St. Louis to the icy reception of the first wave of black residents seeking refuge from the terror of the Jim Crow South. There was, indeed, a master plan, and its goals were explicit.”

It added:

“St. Louis’s regional challenges lie in part in its political and administrative structure. The St. Louis metropolitan area is made up of more than a dozen counties in eastern Missouri and southwestern Illinois. At its core are St. Louis City and St. Louis County, which consists of a tangled web of 90 municipalities. Most of the nearly 50 in North County are majority-black and struggling to make ends meet. Many have their own police force, mayor, city council, and municipal court.

“This regional structure presents a major problem for city budgets dependent on tax revenue. Most cities pay for their agencies and city services with a mix of taxes, fees, and fines. In small, poor, mostly black cities like those that make up North St. Louis County, tax revenues collected from city residents are too meager to cover municipal expenses.

“What these cities lack in tax receipts, they collect through fines and fees stemming from minor municipal violations. These include vehicle violations such as expired registration, speeding, or seat-belt tickets, and other offenses like ‘saggy pants’ or property-upkeep tickets (everything from chipped paint to trash-can violations). Simply put, these are not serious crimes. And, to make matters worse, such laws are unevenly enforced. City governments, incentivized by their own budget goals and shortfalls, encourage local police to increase the number of citations in order to drive up revenue. Municipal courts are the mechanism for collection.

“Qiana Williams is a 37-year-old single mother and long-time resident of St. Louis. Her story is representative of the damage that the broken municipal justice system can have on the lives of the individuals sucked into it. According to Williams, her problems began at the age of 19 when she was ticketed for driving without a license. A couple of months later, after missing a court date, she was arrested and held on a $250 bond, an amount that she could not afford to pay. It eventually became clear that she was unable to pay the bond, even with the threat of continued detention, and she was released — without ever appearing before a judge and with the underlying fine still outstanding, she recalls.

“Since that time, Williams has spent more than four months total in jail in a spiral of unpaid tickets, warrants, and ever-increasing fines that she could not pay because she lacked the necessary income. Hopeful that she would be able to lift herself and her family out of this cycle and pay off her tickets with a college degree, she enrolled in school. She was just 12 credits shy of her degree when she was arrested again for unpaid traffic tickets, she said.

“On one occasion in 2001, Williams called the police after being assaulted by an ex-boyfriend. According to her, when officers arrived, they asked her to step outside to identify the perpetrator. Once outside, she was arrested on an outstanding warrant stemming from parking tickets. The man who assaulted her was released. She says she was told (wrongly) that she could not press charges with an outstanding warrant.

“As is almost always the case, Williams’s family suffered with her during her repeated detentions. Williams’s 10-year-old daughter, Royal, has been deprived of her mother on Christmas, New Year’s, and many other nights, because her mother did not have the resources to pay off municipal-court fines.”

The Atlantic said in the report:

“Walk into one of these courts on any given day—in Ferguson, Pagedale, Pine Lawn, Hazelwood, St. Ann, or easily 40 other municipalities across St. Louis County—and there will be row after row of poor black residents who have been called in to pay penitence for their wrongdoing. Some who are unable to pay are taken straight to the local jail. More often, when people fail to appear because they know that they cannot pay, arrest warrants are issued. Days, weeks, months, or even years later (often times during a routine traffic stop), they will be arrested and taken to jail on this warrant, with the threat of continued confinement serving as a new incentive for immediate payment, no matter the resultant hardships of securing such funds. Detentions stemming from unpaid municipal fines can last anywhere from minutes to weeks or, in extreme cases, even months. This is the reality of the local justice system for some of the most vulnerable residents of Greater St. Louis.

“Defenders of the status quo make a case that laws must be followed. As the argument goes, the citations themselves are validly issued in accordance with local ordinances, and there must be mechanisms in place to enforce even those laws that might be considered mundane. These mechanisms include the issuance and execution of arrest warrants. And by the way, just don’t get tickets in the first place.

“This last admonition is of little use for people like Qiana Williams. As a homeless single mother with a young daughter of school age, she was forced to decide whether it was worth risking being caught behind the wheel without a license in order to transport her daughter back and forth from school. Williams insists that she refused to have her daughter suffer the consequences of her homelessness.

“Setting aside the assumption that all local ordinances serve legitimate municipal purposes (a highly debatable proposition for laws pertaining to ‘sagging pants’ or ‘manner of walking in a roadway’), the simple fact is that violations of these ordinances only lead to jail time for certain people in certain places. There is very little reason to believe that people speed — or fail to signal, or occasionally put their trash cans in the wrong place — less in wealthier (and whiter) cities than in poor black cities. However, residents of wealthier cities are not jailed as a result.

“Why? Two key reasons: For one, these kinds of violations are not as widely and strictly enforced in towns that receive plenty of revenue from other sources (and whose residents wield sufficient political power to halt such a practice in its tracks), and, for another, because the threat of detention does not exist for those who can afford to pay the fines associated with minor municipal citations.

“But what about those who simply fail to appear in court? Should they not face arrest? On one level, for those who agree that the municipal offenses at issue do not themselves justify arrest and incarceration, it strains logic to think that a missed court date for such offenses should carry such punishment. But even beyond that, the reason that many people fail to appear in court is that they do not have the means to pay the fine, and they fear that they will be jailed if they show up empty-handed. Sadly, and despite strong legal protections for those facing such a decision, the fear is sometimes well-founded.

“Skeptics rightly wonder how jailing people can possibly be a cost-efficient way to recover fines. In short, cities throughout the St. Louis area have cut costs to remain in the black. Residents who have experienced these local jails often complain of grotesque and inhumane conditions: unclean cells; shivering temperatures; lack of soap, toothpaste, or feminine-hygiene products. Meals frequently consist of a Honey Bun for breakfast, bologna sandwich or frozen chicken potpie for lunch and dinner. Furthermore, many cities pass on jail costs to the imprisoned themselves through additional fees, cutting the expense significantly. Some cities even collaborate to create economies of scale in this money-making enterprise, by leasing out jail space in one facility to many neighboring cities. The result: a system that has become increasingly adept at squeezing funds out of the region’s poorest and most vulnerable residents.

“In the 1983 case of Bearden v Georgia, the Supreme Court held that even if ‘a State determines a fine or restitution to be the appropriate and adequate penalty for the crime, it may not thereafter imprison a person solely because he lacked the resources to pay it.’ Courts are required to consider alternative methods of punishment, such as community service, if the person charged does not have the means to pay. But too many municipal judges fail to ask whether a person has the means. Considering the budgetary implications of neglecting to ask these questions, it is little wonder why.

“The municipal trap is devastating for individual residents and their families. Those tangled within it routinely lose jobs, housing, future employability, health care, and other benefits, not to mention the time spent in sometimes atrociously maintained local jails. Perversely, these tiny municipalities maintain their ability to continue offering subpar city services by extorting and caging the very people they are meant to serve.

“The fact that American public institutions treat anyone this way warrants outrage. But the truth is that this does not just happen to anyone. Instead, it happens to the same people who have been systematically oppressed and excluded for generations.”

It said:

“The municipal landscape of St. Louis County, like so many others in this country, was designed and implemented with the purpose of keeping black people out of certain neighborhoods and making life exceedingly difficult for those who made their way in. The region today is a reflection of that original intent. In this sense, the system of taxation by citation and its reliance on debtors’ prisons does not represent a new problem, but rather a modern adaptation of a very old model.

“During the Great Migration of the early 1900s, St. Louis became a popular destination for many former slaves relocating in droves from the Deep South. During this ‘Negro Invasion,’ the City of St. Louis passed a local ordinance mandating that blacks and whites live on separate, designated blocks, becoming the first city in the country to pass such a measure by popular ballot. Soon after, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling effectively nullified this law. Undeterred, white residents, realtors, and city planners quickly found new ways to enforce racial segregation in the area.

“Zoning ordinances were one effective tool. Under the leadership of famed city-planner Harland Bartholomew, the City Planning Commission routinely engaged in practices designed to preserve the longstanding racial hierarchy within the city, which is to say, white supremacy. White neighborhoods received priority single-family zoning designations. Multifamily, commercial, and industrial zoning were reserved for areas with large black populations. Many homeowners and neighborhood associations also used racially restrictive covenants prohibiting the resale of property to black buyers. Such covenants were commonplace until ruled unconstitutional in the 1948 landmark St. Louis-based case Shelly v Kraemer.

“With continued black encroachment in the city, the first wave of white flight saw an influx of people into the northern suburbs through the 1940s and ‘50s, aided by government-backed loans from the Federal Housing Administration. This massive federal investment was accompanied by the practice of redlining, or blocking off particular communities from federal dollars based on the presence of black residents. New white transplants to North St. Louis County quickly set about establishing independent municipalities that enabled them to pass zoning ordinances and residency requirements designed to thwart black interlopers.

“These efforts were temporarily effective, but eventually failed like those before. Economically ascendant middle-class black families began purchasing property in these towns, determined to share in this new American Dream of spacious homes in quiet neighborhoods and high-quality schools for their children. Most of these black families left northern St. Louis City and moved into the fledgling municipalities of nearby North St. Louis County.

“This triggered a second wave of white flight. Thousands of middle-class whites with the financial means moved westward and southward to towns that — due to geography, economics, and blatant discrimination — managed to maintain their racial homogeneity. The North County cities and towns left behind saw the predictable effects of any mass exodus, no matter the racial makeup: steep declines in property values, employment opportunities, and income levels.

“This mix of residential trends and public policies reveals a game of musical chairs with a perverse twist: Poor black people must remain standing. Far from a distant memory, this systemic oppression continues to draw invisible lines among St. Louis’s population: in the scourge of subprime mortgages and mass evictions in primarily black communities and in the prevalence of debt-collection lawsuits against black families — families left with no financial safety net to fall back on after generations of discrimination.”

It added:

“This history is crucial not only in understanding the debtors’-prison crisis, but also in understanding the pattern of racial disparity that characterizes the region. While the modern proliferation of debtors’ prisons is an affliction primarily plaguing poor, black municipalities, some parts of St. Louis County that remain almost entirely white continue to resemble the old model of racial exclusion. The City of Ladue is an infamous example of racial targeting in the region. One of the wealthiest cities in the entire country, Ladue is less than 1 percent black. Yet, in 2014, a black driver was 18.5 times more likely to be pulled over than a white driver. Following a stop, a black driver was 2.4 times more likely to be searched and 2.7 times more likely to be arrested.

“In a disturbing admission in May of last year, the city’s former police chief described a conversation with the former mayor in which she directed him to target black drivers so that ‘“those people”’ can see what happens to blacks and that we don’t want them here.’ (The city has denied the former chief’s allegations.) What could possibly explain such use of local police and courts? While a city like Ladue does not face the same budgetary demands as many of the revenue-challenged cities in North County, it is still the product of a broader regional structure designed to exclude and oppress.

“The elegance of local power as a tool of social control is in the seemingly colorblind tedium characterizing the bulk of city affairs. At first glance, issues of local governance appear more bureaucratic than political, more administrative than ideological. However, the history of St. Louis and the surrounding county make clear that many of the region’s cities—with their municipal charters, departments and ordinances — were established with the explicit intent of keeping out undesirable black residents threatening to upset the racial order. Such places were never meant to be hospitable to such people.

“There is a tendency to understand intent, much like racism itself, as only an interpersonal phenomenon. Bias, both conscious and unconscious, is real and destructive. But the systemic intent at work in a place like St. Louis is more a matter of inertia than personal biases. Like Frankenstein’s monster, the system has a life of its own. Local courts and jails are not rife with injustice and racial disparity because they are staffed with ill-meaning personnel; they exhibit these problems because they are the product of structures and policies designed with racial hostility. That is to say, ultimately, these structures and policies have worked precisely as planned.”

The report said:

“Community activists and court-reform advocates in the St. Louis area are calling for a complete overhaul of the municipal-court system. They demand that the current structure of scattered, largely autonomous local courts be abolished and replaced with a single, consolidated, professional court operating with renewed emphasis on procedural fairness as opposed to revenue generation. Opponents of such sweeping change prefer instead to focus on issues of personnel, training of court officials, and other less disruptive modifications.

“The story of the debtors’-prison crisis in St. Louis is partly one of individual failings by local officials and institutional actors whose job security depends on collective indifference to the status quo. But to regard the story solely, or primarily, as one of individual failings is to fundamentally misunderstand the problem itself as well as the structural forces responsible for the design of the region. This design did not emerge last week, last month or last year. It is the many-headed hydra produced by conscious and sustained efforts many decades ago.

“The region’s institutionalized racism left more than haunting memories; it left a legacy that continues to affect countless lives in the greater St. Louis area. For Dred Scott, more than a 150 years ago, the cost of returning to St. Louis was his freedom. For thousands of mostly poor black people living in this region today, their freedom remains up for grabs.

One thought on “FACE OF AN ECONOMY: U.S.: Debtors’ prison

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