It used to be that debts were enforced with the threat of imprisonment. If you took out a loan and you couldn't afford to pay it back, then you would be arrested and thrown in jail. But now—in the United States, at least—debtors' prisons are supposed to be a thing of the past, a relic from a more barbaric era.
"For the most part, the US outlawed debtors' prisons before the Civil War," said guest host Ezra Klein on Tuesday's episode of The Rachel Maddow Show.
And yet. "In this country, we are still throwing people into prison for owing money and not paying it back. And here's the really perverse part: they owe the money to us."
According to a Tuesday New York Times article, an increasing number of cash-strapped American cities are punishing minor legal infractions with fees as a way of adding a little extra money to their coffers. And because they don't have the resources to adequately fund their courts and prisons, these same cities wind up recruiting for-profit corporations to mete out punishment. Times reporter Ethan Bronner writes that some of those companies, notably one called Judicial Corrections Services, "charge public authorities nothing and make their money by adding fees onto the bills of the defendants."
The results are staggering: one man mentioned in the article, Richard Garrett, "has spent a total of 24 months in jail and owes $10,000, all for traffic and license violations that began a decade ago."
This policy of charging punitive fees, then jailing people for being too poor to pay them, is part of a larger trend that sociologist Barbara Ehrenreich calls "the criminalization of poverty." She writes: "In defiance of all reason and compassion, the criminalization of poverty has actually intensified as the weakened economy generates ever more poverty." As joblessness and poverty spike, and the state institutions charged with assisting the needy whither away, the government instead reacts to poverty with authoritarian, punitive measures.
As an example of how poverty becomes criminal, Ehrenreich cites laws against sleeping on park benches, which effectively penalize the homeless for not having anywhere else to go. In the case of these fees, the analogy would be what the Brennan Center calls "poverty penalties:" "additional late fees, payment plan fees, and interest when individuals are unable to pay their debts all at once, often enriching private debt collectors in the process."
But note what, exactly, is driving this trend. It might be "in defiance of all reason and compassion," as Ehrenreich puts it, but the policy makers and private institutions behind these fees certainly have their own reasons. For city officials, the fees and affordable private contractors represent a way to balance budgets in an era of enforced top-down austerity—the same reason why, as we reported on Monday, many American cities are plastering corporate advertising on public goods.
But putting ads on fire trucks is totally benign compared to putting the justice system in the hands of private contractors. Those contractors have a substantial financial incentive to make the fees as draconian as possible, and it's that incentive—not the considerations of justice and fairness that are supposed to guide our courts—which will inevitably govern how they enforce these new laws.