The United States may have formally outlawed jailing people for unpaid debts two centuries ago, but in South Carolina—and at least 14 other states, including Colorado, New Hampshire, Arkansas, Mississippi, Georgia, Missouri, Texas, and Washington—people who cannot afford to pay money to courts are routinely thrown in jail without so much as a court hearing.
The result is modern-day “debtors prisons” where poor people—disproportionately people of color—are locked up because they are unable to pay fines and fees for traffic violations and other misdemeanors. This holiday season, these debtors’ prisons will unlawfully separate poor people from their families, undermining core values of fairness and equal treatment of rich and poor that should be the hallmark of our justice system.
Cayeshia Johnson worked three part-time jobs to support her four young children. Earlier this year, she was in a minor car accident and received tickets as a result. Despite her efforts to reschedule her court date to one she could attend and to set up a payment plan, a court in Lexington County, South Carolina, found Cayeshia guilty and sentenced her to pay without having her appear in court or determining whether she could actually pay. Unbeknownst to Cayeshia, the court also issued a warrant ordering her to be locked up unless she paid the entire amount of fines and court fees in full. It was only after Cayeshia was arrested at a traffic stop that she learned what happened, and was jailed for 55 days because she couldn’t pay $1,287.50 in court fines and fees.
Needless to say, the consequences were devastating. Cayeshia was jailed for almost two months, separated from her kids, and lost all three of the jobs she had. Not only did she suffer, but so did her children and extended family. Cayeshia is far from alone. Court and jail records suggest that around 1,000 people were targeted for arrest and jail in Lexington County because they cannot afford to pay money to county magistrate courts.
The harms of debtors’ prisons fall unequally on different racial and ethnic communities. Like many people locked up for being poor, Cayeshia is Black. Across the country, people of color suffer disproportionately when the justice system allows people with money to buy their freedom while the poor are jailed, causing their families to suffer, their jobs to disappear, and their chance of escaping poverty to become even more remote.
Racial disparities in debtors’ prisons should hardly be a surprise when the criminal justice system as a whole disproportionately ensnares people of color. In Ferguson, Missouri, for example, the U.S. Department of Justice found that police practices were laced with racial bias and linked to the significant over-representation of Black people in traffic stops, arrests, and citations — all of which can lead to hefty fines and court fees. Stark racial disparities in income and wealth exacerbate the problem. In 2016, the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF) revealed that the median income of Black people is less than 60 percent that of white people ($35,400 vs. $61,200), and that the median net worth of Black people was only around ten percent that of white people ($17,600 vs. $171,000). The ratios for Latino/white income and wealth are comparable.
Black and Latino people bear the brunt of debtor’s prisons across the country and in Lexington County, where the poverty rate is twice as high for Black and Latino people as for white people. Indeed Cayeshia is joined by three other mothers of color—Twanda Marshinda Brown, Amy Marie Palacios, and Sasha Monique Darby—in challenging Lexington County’s debtors’ prisons through a class action lawsuit by the ACLU. Each of these women were separated from their children and lost their jobs due to Lexington County’s debtors’ prison.
This holiday season, South Carolina mothers living in poverty like Cayeshia will give thanks for simply being able to spend any of it with their children. And there are hopeful signs of push back against the debtors prisons practices that separated Cayeshia from her kids. Key court leaders in the state have recently begun reforms that call out coercive efforts to collect court fines and fees as unlawful and contrary to core principles of fairness and equal treatment of rich and poor.
Earlier this month South Carolina Supreme Court Justice Donald Beatty, the first Black man to hold the post, conducted a training for all lower court judges making clear that poor defendants have a constitutional right to counsel and that warrants issued against people for unpaid court fines and fees should be recalled unless such rights were protected. The chief judge in Charleston County and others heard that call and voluntarily recalled warrants precisely like the one used to unlawfully arrest and jail Cayeshia Johnson. Some South Carolinians who might otherwise have spent their holidays in jail for choosing to feed their family instead of paying a parking ticket will be breaking bread at home, so long as they live within a jurisdiction willing to cooperate with Chief Justice Beatty’s guidance.
But what about those jurisdictions that don’t? For that matter, what about the holidays of thousands of poor people in jails in the 15 other states with debtors’ prisons? And what about every other day in which people suffer jail, license suspensions, and other draconian punishments just because they do not have money?
In this season, when we treasure our families and are mindful of those who are less fortunate, court leaders should take concerted action to end debtor’s prisons. In South Carolina, for example, all outstanding bench warrants that order people to be arrested and jailed unless they can pay money to courts should be recalled until we can be sure these warrants are issued only after a court hearing, a finding that the person is able to pay, and protection to ensure that indigent people are represented by counsel before being jailed.
We all deserve a justice system that is fair and provides equal treatment to rich and poor. It is long past time to ensure that these values guide our courts.
Nusrat Choudury is a senior attorney with the ACLU Racial Justice Project.