(UR) Washington, DC — In what is being seen as the return of the Debtor’s Prison, poor and often indigent defendants are being jailed in ever-increasing numbers for their inability to pay legal fees and fines. The practice of jailing people for debt was abolished in the US in the 19th century, and for good reason: it is hard to repay that debt when you are in jail. More importantly, the practice was deemed unconstitutional, a decision that was upheld by the 1971 Tate v. Short ruling.
The 14th Amendment of the Constitution guarantees “equal protection of the laws” to all U.S. citizens. When poor citizens are being incarcerated for their inability to pay fines and the judges who hand down these unconstitutional rulings do not face prosecution, equality seems to have been set aside. A memo from the Department of Justice, released this past week, seeks to return a little equality to the justice system.
The DOJ memo, circulated to chief justices and court administrators at the state level, is a federal attempt to remind judges that the practice of imprisonment for debt is unconstitutional, and to restore some modicum of wealth-poverty equality before the legal system. It does, however, fall short.
If a judge unconstitutionally incarcerates a citizen for being unable to pay their court fees, then that judge is breaking the law. If the judge is not then tried, the inequality of the system remains.
Addressing one of the fundamental inequalities of the legal system is at the heart of the DOJ document. For many poor and marginalized populations, specifically non-whites, it represents a baby-step in the right direction. As well, while charging and jailing judges who violate the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens under color of law legislation may restore the concept of “equality before the law,” it will not kill the root of the problem.
One of the issues underlying this inequality is the for-profit model of the modern prison system. Private companies, invested in various aspects of the corrections system, require high prisoner populations in order to profit. If the overall goal of stakeholders is not the rehabilitation of incarcerated offenders, but capital gain — and as long as the interests of private industry are represented — the system’s very integrity is suspect.
Criminally charging judges who violate the constitutional rights of defendants, let alone sending out a strongly-worded memo reminding judges of their constitutional duties will, perhaps, restore some of the balance. It does, at the very least, suggest to the poor people who find themselves imprisoned for being unable to pay a fee that someone in the government is trying to help the situation.
Unless the motivation for that corruption is eliminated, however, new problems will only emerge, and whatever equality is reached will only be temporary.
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