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Local Jurisdictions Make Debtors' Prison Pay, But At What Cost?

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It is unconstitutional to imprison an individual for inability to pay a fine. Yet across the United States, men and women are serving jail time for failure to pay criminal fines and "user fees" imposed by cash-strapped jurisdictions. These fines and fees are often collected by private companies, which impose their own fees. For example, the New York Times recently reported on the case of Gina Ray, who lost her driver's license when she failed to appear in court for a speeding ticket. When she was later arrested for driving with an invalid license, she was handed over to private probation company, imprisoned, and charged an additional fee for each day behind bars. In all, she spent 40 days in jail, and still owes more than $3000, much of it to the private probation company. The ABA Journal reported on the case of Ameen Muqtadir, who was released from a Pennsylvania prison in 2002 after serving time for robbery, but years later billed more than $40,000 for bail allegedly forfeited when he failed to appear in court in connection with that crime. (Muqtadir was in prison at the time of the court appearances.) States and localities have increasingly looked to the criminal justice system as a means of generating revenue, imposing fees for everything from being arrested to obtaining parole, and for the costs of incarceration. Both the ACLU and NYU's Brennan Center for Justice have published reports detailing the "devastating impact" that incarcerating individuals unable to pay these fees can have on individuals attempting to reenter society after serving criminal sentences, and the "severe -- and often hidden -- costs" on communities and taxpayers, as these fees make it harder for individuals to find employment and housing, and to meet obligations like child support. But the practice -- which is being challenged in several lawsuits -- continues.

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Rafael Mangual
Project Manager,
Legal Policy

Manhattan Institute


Published by the Manhattan Institute

The Manhattan Insitute's Center for Legal Policy.