Many jurisdictions seem not to have gotten the Supreme Court’s memo that people can’t be jailed for unintentionally failing to pay a criminal fine.
While the world slowly bounces back from the Great Recession, the U.S. Department of Justice seems to be encroaching more and more into the daily lives of Americans — dishing out harsher punishments for behaviors that historically were punishable with no more than a small fine.
Take Linda Bearden, for example. She’s been in jail multiple times for failing to pay her court costs and traffic tickets. Most recently, Bearden has been serving time at the Tulsa County Jail in Oklahoma since Oct. 15 because she owes more than $1,200 in traffic tickets.
“I’m not a bad person,” Bearden said during an interview at the Tulsa Jail. “I just have no money.
“How many times do you just have to keep coming back because you have no money?”
Though the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 1983 case Bearden v. Georgia — featuring an inmate who happened to share the same surname as Linda Bearden — that people cannot be imprisoned for failing to pay a criminal fine unless they did so intentionally, the number of Tulsa Jail bookings that involve an inmate’s inability to pay court fines and fees has more than tripled during the past decade.
In July 2004, 8 percent of inmates were behind bars for failure to pay costs, compared with 29 percent of the 1,200 inmates in July 2013.
Locking up more people for their inability to pay tickets and fees has resulted in overcrowding at the Tulsa Jail, according to Tulsa County Undersheriff Tim Albin.
Albin added that while the jail population would increase during the summer months, the population climbed in the summer months — and kept climbing. Though the jail is considered full at 1,650 inmates, Albin said the facility had more than 1,800 inmates this past September.
He estimates that failure to appear in court and failure to pay court costs keeps the jail two-thirds full on most days. But Albin says the “debtor’s jail” system is not working since it puts a financial burden on taxpayers and doesn’t allow inmates to get back to work so they can pay their fees and fines.
“The cheapest traffic ticket we write is $160,” he said. “People are struggling. There’s not a lot of income. And that has a cascading effect.” Albin noted that sometimes an inmate doesn’t pay the fines and fees, and said that’s when “those warrants get issued and the amount they owe keeps going up.”
According to a report in the Tulsa World, district and municipal court fees in Tulsa have increased by 30 percent or more since 2003, which marks a higher rate than inflation and average household income growth for the area.
Bob Garner is the chief prosecutor for the city of Tulsa. He said it’s common for a city to increase fees and fines about every four years and that while the last increase occurred in 2009, local police officers say the prices shouldn’t increase any more since they are high enough.
Garner added that while the economy may prevent some people from paying their fines, judges will typically work with people who show up for their court date and explain their financial situation. Most of the people being arrested “are not people who manage money well anyway,” he said.
Tulsa County Special Judge William Hiddle agreed and said, “Whether they owe $300 or $30,000, the only reason they ended up in jail is because they did not show up and ask for more time to pay.”
When one woman appeared before Tulsa County Special Judge Anthony Miller, she said she hadn’t paid her court costs because she wouldn’t have been able to pay her electric bill. But Miller said that like the electric companies, the court has its way of cutting off the proverbial power: if a person doesn’t pay their dues, they are sent to jail.
Talking to Tulsa World, Miller said he is happy to help defendants come up with a compromise so they can pay their fines and fees, but says he is only willing to help someone if they hold up their end of the deal.
Unconstitutional and uncalled-for
Mike Brickner is the director of communications and public policy at the American Civil Liberties Union’s Ohio chapter. He wrote a piece earlier this year explaining that despite the Supreme Court’s ruling and the unconstitutionality of jailing a person for failing to pay their court fines, debtors’ prisons continue to flourish across the U.S.
“Most people who receive a traffic ticket or a fine related to a criminal conviction simply pay it and move on with their lives,” he wrote. “But for the poor, court fines and fees may be completely unaffordable.”
He shared the story of John Bundren and Samantha Reed, who are both in their early 20s and have a 16-month-old daughter, Allie.
Bundren struggled with alcohol addiction during his teens and was convicted multiple times for underage drinking and public intoxication, accumulating a debt of nearly $3,000 in court fines and fees. Samantha also had a misdemeanor conviction and owed a few hundred dollars.
Bundren and Reed said they were unable to get high-paying jobs, so they had to choose to pay their fines or buy diapers for their daughter. The couple paid off Reed’s debt first so she could take care of Allie, so Bundren ended up getting arrested four times — spending 41 days in jail.
Though the ACLU has worked to hold courts and judges accountable for unconstitutionally sending poor people to prison, Brickner said the group hasn’t been able to make any dramatic difference yet.
He added, “One thing is sure: until systemic change occurs and courts are forced to obey the law, stories like John and Samantha’s will be all too common. Debtors’ prisons are a black eye on our justice system. Our conscience—and our Constitution—deserve better.”
While the Tulsa-based judges appear to be willing to work with some cash-strapped civilians and despite the Supreme Court’s ruling, a 2010 report from the ACLU found that debtors’ prisons are alive and well with the United States, specifically in Louisiana, Michigan, Ohio, Georgia and Washington.
The report, “In for a Penny: The Rise of America’s New Debtors’ Prisons,” found that poor defendants are jailed at high rates for inability to pay legal debts. Despite large budget deficits, the ACLU found that states often pursued people who had not paid their court fees and fines.
“Imprisoning those who fail to pay fines and court costs is a relatively recent and growing phenomenon: States and counties, hard-pressed to find revenue to shore up failing budgets, see a ready source of funds in defendants who can be assessed LFOs (legal financial obligations) that must be repaid on pain of imprisonment, and have grown more aggressive in their collection efforts,” the report says.
“Incarcerating indigent men and women only diminishes their ability to repay their legal debts, and the disruption in their lives and the lives of their families and loved ones can lead to increased public costs when they are forced to use social welfare programs to survive. Even when defendants are not incarcerated, the costs of collection efforts can make seeking unpaid LFOs cost-ineffective, since issuing warrants, conducting hearings, and using collections agents and law enforcement officials to locate and detain debtors all cost money.”