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Judges putting people in jail who are unable to pay court fees

Did you know that it’s unlawful to send someone to jail simply because they are unable to pay back a debt? A ruling made before the Civil War made sure of that and three times since 1970 the U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed this ruling. But if it’s unlawful to incarcerate someone because of their inability to pay back a debt, such as court fees or fines, then why are people encountering this problem in states across the nation?

This was the troubling question that is being raised by an NPR report this month in which an investigator looked into a 21st century version of debtors’ prisons. It may seem surprising that the courts, which are designed to uphold the law, would so unabashedly violate it by sending people to jail for being too poor to pay their debts. Unfortunately, as the reporter discovered, this is exactly what is going on.

Our California readers can see this exemplified in cases across America, including in Bearden v. Georgia. In this case a man was ordered to pay the court $2,600 after being caught for trespassing. Down on his luck and in an extreme financial crisis -- he only had $25 to his name -- he pleaded with the judge to give him more time to pay. But instead the judge sentenced him to time in jail, which cost him his new job and put him at risk of further jail time.

His is not the only case where a judge’s discretion has caused incarceration because of an inability to pay. Even more troubling is the fact that after looking at all 50 states, the NPR investigator learned that at least 43 states are now charging people for the use of a public defender, which is considered an important part to any criminal defense. What happens if you are sent to jail? If you’re unlucky enough to live in 41 unspecified states in the nation, you may be charged for room and board as well.

Wrongful imprisonment and violated civil rights are two important issues for our Livermore readers, which is why we are bringing it up in this week’s blog post. But this is not just an issue found here in California but rather across the entire country, which is why there is hope that educating the masses about the issue will bring change for future cases.

Source: NPR.org, "Unpaid Court Fees Land the Poor in 21st Century Debtors' Prisons," Joseph Shapiro, May 20, 2014

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