Constitutional Law

Can't Pay Court Costs? Jail Is Alternative, in Florida & Other States


Most people may think of debtors’ prisons as a relic of history. But they arguably still exist in this country, where judges in criminal cases routinely employ a strong-arm collection tactic concerning court-imposed fees that isn’t available to the most aggressive civil creditor: They put people in jail.

As courts throughout the country struggle to provide services in a time of economic stress and budget cuts, Florida courts are a leading practitioner of the pay-or-go-to-jail approach—and the tactic is gaining attention from other jurisdictions, reports the New York Times. Faced with the threat of imprisonment, many defendants, no matter how poor, find a way to ante up, officials say.

“Constitutional law forbids jailing people solely over fees and fines that they cannot pay, but Florida officials argue that, technically, they are jailing people because they violated court orders, not because they failed to pay fines,” the newspaper writes.

A Michigan woman recently spent 28 days behind bars in her home state, before the American Civil Liberties Union helped get her out, because she couldn’t afford to pay the $104 monthly cost concerning a detention of her 16-year-old son, recounts the New York Times in an editorial on “the new debtors’ prisons.”

The editorial castigates the practice of jailing those who can’t afford to make court-ordered payments as both barbaric and unconstitutional.

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