One of the many disturbing things that came to light after the Ferguson police shooting of Michael Brown was the City’s abuse of court fines and fees in order to create what is essentially a modern day debtors’ prison. This is a problem plaguing many cities, big and small, around the country: a prison-for-debt world predominantly populated by poor people of color who have essentially been shaken down by the local police force and then jailed for failure to pay outrageous fines and fees for petty violations, like traffic offenses. When the victims can’t pay, they are arrested and then even more fines and fees are added to mix, resulting from their nonpayment and arrest. Their subsequent incarceration amounts to debtors’ prison: they’re not imprisoned for having a faulty tail light or not having proper car registration; but they are imprisoned because they could not pay the expensive associated fines and fees. Many communities around the country actually fund the bulk of their municipal budgets this way, by charging poor people exorbitant court fines and fees for nonviolent offenses.
For instance, in Ferguson— a city of 21,135 people — in 2013, the courts issued 32,975 arrest warrants for nonviolent offenses, mostly driving violations. In 2014, the City of Ferguson issued an average of more than 3.6 arrest warrants per household and almost 2.2 arrest warrants for every adult, mostly in cases involving unpaid debt for tickets. With each of those warrants, the police sought to arrest someone, and absurdly high fines and fees accumulated. Ferguson collected $2.6 million in fines and fees last year.
A class action law suit against the City of Ferguson this year describes this debtors’ prison system. The plaintiffs in the law suit are all poor people who were locked up in jail indefinitely for not being able to pay their fines. They were not given a public defender, and there was no consideration given to their ability to pay. Instead, they were simply locked up until frightened family members could scrape together the ransom fine or until City jail officials decided days or weeks later, to let them out for free. The lawsuit’s description of the appalling jail conditions describes what sounds like a squalid medieval debtors’ prison: The inmates are kept in overcrowded cells; they are denied toothbrushes, toothpaste, and soap; they are subjected to the constant stench of excrement and refuse in their congested cells; they are surrounded by walls smeared with mucus and blood; they are kept in the same clothes for days and weeks without access to laundry or clean underwear; they step on top of other inmates, whose bodies cover nearly the entire uncleaned cell floor, in order to access a single shared toilet that the City does not clean; they develop untreated illnesses and infections in open wounds that spread to other inmates; they endure days and weeks without being allowed to use the moldy shower; their filthy bodies huddle in cold temperatures with a single thin blanket even as they beg guards for warm blankets; they are not given adequate hygiene products for menstruation; they are routinely denied vital medical care and prescription medication, even when their families beg to be allowed to bring medication to the jail; they are provided food so insufficient and lacking in nutrition that inmates lose significant amounts of weight; they suffer from dehydration out of fear of drinking foul smelling water that comes from an apparatus on top of the toilet; and they must listen to the screams of other inmates languishing from unattended medical issues as they sit in their cells without access to books, legal materials, television, or natural light. Perhaps worst of all, they do not know when they will be allowed to leave.
This horror is by no means unique to Ferguson. This is how many municipalities are funding their budgets. In Illinois, the complex, overlapping fines and fees system could result in a first-time, small scale, non-violent offender owing thousands of dollars. Too many parts of the country are funding their budgets on the backs of poor people. The return of the debtors’ prison is immoral and wrong, and we at Loevy & Loevy are proud to be working on both the legislative front and the legal front to put an end to this oppressive system.