Sunday, June 04, 2017

ACLU sues South Carolina county for arresting and jailing people too poor to pay court fines (kelly Macias) · Friday, June 02, 2017, 2:29 pm

America does an excellent job at shaming its poor people. Sure, there are state and federal programs that exist to help them. And in this way, we can pat ourselves on the back and make ourselves feel better about our supposed sense of charity. But look below the surface and you will also see a consistent pattern of policies that are designed to stigmatize and punish the impoverished for their condition.

Recently in Wisconsin, the state’s budget committee approved a plan to drug test Medicaid recipients, despite zero evidence existing that those who receive public benefits use drugs. Nevertheless, Republicans keep insisting that we should be policing poor people every chance we get. And the assault on poor people at the state level can be increasingly seen in the ways that some states have set up laws to arrest and incarcerate those who are too cash-strapped to pay court fees. The good news, however, is that organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) are fighting back. On Thursday, the ACLU filed a lawsuit alleging that officials in Lexington County, South Carolina, engage in practices which set up today’s equivalent of a “debtors’ prison”—locking up those who cannot afford to pay their debt. And it will come as no surprise that it is often people of color who are most impacted by this system.

Thursday’s lawsuit, filed on behalf of five indigent plaintiffs, [including Twanda Marshinda Brown, the single mother of seven children who was jailed for 57 days because she could not afford to pay her court-ordered $2,407.63 in fines for driving on a suspended license] alleges that Lexington County has been engaging in the equivalent of modern-day “debtors’ prison” practices: issuing arrest warrants for people who are unable to pay court fees or court-ordered fines for minor infractions like parking tickets, and jailing them without offering them lawyers or determining whether they have the ability to pay in the first place. [...]

Simply put, courts cannot jail people because they are too poor to pay fines—sometimes called “pay or stay.” In 1833, Congress abolished the use of debtors’ prisons and in 1983, the U.S. Supreme Court followed suit in a case called Bearden v. Georgia.

In Bearden, the Supreme Court noted that it had “long been sensitive to the treatment of indigents in our criminal justice system.” It continued: “There can be no equal justice where the kind of a trial a man gets depends on the amount of money he has.”


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