Reviews | The new prisons of debt


All of these high costs add up and accumulate, creating multiple barriers to a fresh start and a second chance.

First, when private debt collectors convert criminal debts into civil judgments, it can lead to lower credit scores. This makes it more difficult to find housing, buy a car and get a job. Second, the vast majority of states suspend licenses for non-payment of court debts – even though being able to drive is often essential for finding a job, getting to work on time – and yes, paying off criminal justice debts. Forty-one states suspend or prevent people from renewing their driver’s licenses over court debts, says Free to drive. There are seven million to 11 millions of Americans with suspended licenses due to traffic and court debt. A study by Rutgers University find that 42 percent of New Jersey residents whose licenses have been suspended have lost their jobs. Forty-five percent of those who became unemployed could not find another job, and 88 percent of those who found another job reported earning less than in their previous job.

Third, criminal justice debt may prevent those released from prison from obtaining the professional licenses that they require. one in four the jobs required for a new trade and a new career. Take Jackie, a mother of three and a licensed practical nurse. His $ 800 in debt stood on the way clear her criminal history and be able to get the certified nursing assistant license she needed to do the job she had trained for. But she had neither the income nor the savings to pay what she owed and struggled to make monthly payments of $ 5. Some states go even further, charging exorbitant rates for write-offs. Louisiana charges $ 550. It’s a cruel trap: where criminal justice debt keeps people from finding jobs, it denies both Americans a second chance and a fresh start and blocks their ability to repay those debts.

Real debt prison:

The new debt prisons are not just metaphorical. Criminal justice debt also puts many people in jail or jail. In 1983, the Supreme Court ruled that the imprisonment of indigent debtors violated the 14th Amendment. Yet the judges rarely consider the ability of defendants to pay before imposing fines and costs, and studies in different regions have found that One out of five people in prison were there for unpaid court debts. Across the country, from Missouri to New York to Texas, people are serve a prison sentence for non-payment of fines and costs. Texas imprisoned over half a million people in 2017 for non-payment of fines and costs and over 450,000 in 2018. In 2016, 44 states allowed courts to send people back to jail or jail for non-payment of a judicial debt.

In a striking example which appears to be taken from a century ago, in Mississippi, judges can hand down indefinite sentences for people to pay off their restitution and legal debt at one of the four “restitution centers” of the ‘State. Debtors work for private employers with sentences that can last as long as it takes to pay off their debt. Three-quarters of the money people “earn” in these centers goes to courts and corrections, and half of the people in the centers were working with less than $ 3,515 in debt.

It must stop.

The evidence is now overwhelming that the explosion in criminal justice debt deepens racial inequalities in the system and prevents millions of Americans from earning a living and caring for their families. We must call on state and local governments to fund the police and the criminal justice system through general revenue or generalized forms of funding instead of such fines and fees. This would increase both second chances and administrative efficiency. The Brennan Center reports that it costs states and local communities 121 times as much to raise money through fines and fees than it costs the IRS to raise the same amount of revenue. And as we undergo a nationwide review of cash bail and other forms of poverty criminalization, we should make a firm determination to stop jailing anyone for non-payment of fines and criminal justice costs due. poverty or lack of income or savings.

We also need to step up legislative efforts to reduce driver’s license suspensions due to fines and unpaid fees, as we’ve seen recently in states and cities including New York City, West Virginia, California Washington DC, and Chicago. The bipartite Opportunity Conduct Act, co-sponsored by Senators Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware, and Roger Wicker, Republican of Mississippi, and supported by Patrick Yoes, national president of the Fraternal Order of the Police, would encourage more states to stop suspending debt licenses unpaid. The recent legislation to repeal the ban on Pell scholarships for incarcerated people seeking higher education is good news but is only a first step. To increase employment opportunities and economic independence for those coming out of prison, much more funds are needed to expand innovative pre-apprenticeship programs for those in prison, to support ‘clean slate’ efforts to to clear the records of those arrested or convicted and to provide full transitional housing. and employment assistance for those released from prison.

A belief in the economic logic and economic dignity of giving all Americans a second and third chance has led our nation to end debt prisons once before. It’s time to end it once again.

Sperling gene was the director of the National Economic Council under President Barack Obama and President Bill Clinton, and is the author of “Economic Dignity.”

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