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Class Action Lawsuit Filed Against Debtors’ Prison For Juveniles (WATCH)

Normally, the act of jailing someone for being unable to pay fines would be classified under “things that are not okay,” and “things long abandoned in the US,” but for some towns in America, the practice is creeping back into popularity.

In Harpersville, Alabama, the website Common Dreams reports, Debra Shoemaker Ford was fined for driving without a license or proof of insurance. The fine didn’t take into account the unfortunate cycle of poverty that plagues some of the residents of Harpersville.

Ford had not worked since a car wreck a decade earlier, living only on disability payments. Her license had been revoked for failing to pay a parking ticket. Driving is the only way to get around rural Alabama, and she had to drive to go to work to get the money necessary to pay such tickets.

It was a classic Catch 22, and Ford walked away from the interaction with more fines, which she also couldn’t pay, and two years later, the Harpersville Municipal Court issued a warrant for her arrest and charged her thirty-one dollars a day for the cost of jailing her.

This conundrum isn’t all that uncommon in areas of high poverty, and extends to children, says a report by The Juvenile Law Center, the oldest public interest law firm for children in the United States. In their report, they state:

“Youth who can’t pay for alternative programs may enter the juvenile justice system when a wealthier peer would not.”

According to Common Dreams, a new federal class-action lawsuit:

“…accuses 13 St. Louis-area municipalities of “terrorizing” poor, primarily African-American people through a “deliberate and coordinated conspiracy” by “creating a modern-day police state and debtors’ prison scheme that has no place in American society.”

Many states maintain this system by forcing families with children sentenced to probation to pay a fine. If the family cannot afford the monthly fine, it will count as a probation violation, and the child will enter the juvenile detention system.

This threat to justice has long been pointed out by others desperately trying to change it. In August 2014, the LA times published an article focusing on the town of Ferguson, MO, which garnered national attention after Officer Darren Wilson shot 18-year-old Michael Brown.


However, the article focuses on the fact that Ferguson was actually a potent cocktail of unchecked police brutality as well as the bureaucratic and economic strangulation described in the juvenile debtors’ systems. These problems, together, writ large, and not solely the death of Michael Brown, ratcheted up racial tensions and led to the firestorm of Ferguson, MO.

Blake Strode, attorney for the non-profit, Arch City Defenders, who filed the suit in tandem with the law firm Arnold & Porter, stated:

“[We can’t] hold people in jail because they’re too poor to pay a debt.”

The suit also mentions that there is a financial incentive for what these municipalities in Missouri are doing, as these fees generate clipping debts for plaintiffs, often worsening their already desperate poverty.

Valid or not, the suit makes it clear that these citations, fees, and fines, go to serve the interests of the municipalities and not the public, and serve to entrench the poor further in the kind of poverty represented by America’s increasing problem with wealth inequality.

To learn more about debtor’s prisons, watch this Vice documentary below:

Featured image via the ACLU.

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