Debtors’ Prisons Rise Again In the South


From Facing South, the online magazine of the Institute for Southern Studies.

The Brennan Center for Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union released reports this week documenting the growing problem of criminal justice debt and the considerable costs it’s imposing on communities, taxpayers and indigent people convicted of crimes. The following figures come from those reports, titled respectively “Criminal Justice Debt: A Barrier to Reentry” and “In for a Penny: The Rise of America’s New Debtor Prisons.”

Click on the figure to go the specific source.

Of the 15 states with the highest prison populations examined in a recent report on “user fees” imposed on people with criminal convictions, number in the South: 7*

Number of those 15 states that utilize “poverty penalties” against convicts such as late fees, payment plan fees and interest: 14

Number that charge poor people public defender fees for exercising their constitutional right to counsel: 13

Number that suspend driving privileges for missed debt payments, hurting people’s job opportunities: 8

Number that require individuals to pay off criminal justice fees before reinstating their eligibility to vote: 7

Number that have attempted to measure the impact of criminal justice debt on offenders, their families or communities: 0

Collection fee charged by Alabama for court-related costs: 30 percent

Surcharge Florida allows private debt collectors to tack on to a convicted person’s debt: 40 percent

Amount North Carolina charges for failure to pay a fine or court cost on time: $25

Amount it charges to set up an installment payment plan: $20

Amount it charges for a failure to appear: $200

Amount it charges defendants for crime lab fees: $600

Amount it can assess a person convicted of a DUI for the use of a continuous alcohol monitoring system: up to $1,000

Number of people jailed in North Carolina’s Mecklenburg County in 2009 for failing to pay court-related debt: 246

Amount of money the county made from those jailings: $0

Amount that people released to parole in Texas typically owe in offense-related debt: $500 to $2,000

Amount that defendants in Virginia may be charged per count for certain felonies: $1,235

Percent of felony cases before the New Orleans courts that relate to debt collection issues: over 6

Value of food that Gregory White, a homeless resident of New Orleans, was convicted of stealing: $39

Amount White was assessed in fines and fees for his crime: $339

Number of days White spent in jail because he was unable to pay his debt and couldn’t afford the bus fare to complete community service: 198

Cost of his incarceration for the city: over $3,500

Year in which the Orleans Parish, La. municipal court system settled a lawsuit by agreeing to put a stop to “fines or time” sentencing: 2007

Number of such sentences handed down by that same court in March 2010 alone: at least 32

Estimated percent of people charged with criminal offenses in the U.S. who qualify for indigent defense: 80 to 90 percent

Percentage by which African-American defendants are more likely than white defendants to rely on indigent defense counsel: almost 500

Decade through which many Southern states were still using criminal justice debt collection to effectively re-enslave African-Americans by allowing landowners and companies to “lease” black convicts unable to pay on their own: 1930s

Year in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that imprisoning someone merely because of his inability to pay a fine or restitution was fundamentally unfair: 1983

* The states studied in order of number of persons in prison (Southern states bolded) were California, Texas, Florida, New York, Georgia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois, Arizona, North Carolina, Louisiana, Virginia, Alabama and Missouri.

Sue Sturgis is an investigative reporter and editorial director of Facing South, the online magazine of the Institute for Southern Studies, where this story first appeared.