People sometimes joke that it’s a crime to be poor in America. But in places like Biloxi, Mississippi, where you can go to jail for unpaid fines, it’s no joke.
The ACLU has filed a civil suit against the city of Biloxi, the Biloxi Police Chief, and others, claiming that the city is arresting citizens and jailing them for owing as little as $1,000 in traffic fines. The suit states:
The City routinely arrests and jails impoverished people in a scheme to generate municipal revenue through the collection of unpaid fines, fees, and court costs imposed in traffic and other misdemeanor cases. As a result, each year hundreds of poor residents of the City and surrounding areas, including individuals with disabilities and homeless people, are deprived of their liberty in the Harrison County Adult Detention Center for days to weeks at a time for no reason other than their poverty and in violation of their most basic constitutional rights.
One of the plaintiffs, Qumotria Kennedy, who is a single mother, was pulled over by the police one day, taken to the police station and told that she would have to pay $1,001, an amount that she owed in traffic fines, in order to be released. As she could not afford it, she was put in jail for five days, during which time she lost her job. Kennedy writes on the ACLU website:
“They didn’t bring me to court, give me a lawyer or even tell me that I had a right to one… No one told me how long I’d be in jail. Each day, I was wondering when I would see my daughter or be brought to court.”
Imprisoning people for debts (in so-called “debtors prison”) is an archaic system that has been formally banned in this country for over 150 years. Nevertheless, the disgusting practice is on the rise again in many states. The ACLU has filed six lawsuits since September against places like New Orleans, and Benton County, Washington.
In Benton County, a quarter of those in jail are there because of their debt. And in many cases, these debts are acquired as a result of court fines that are imposed on defendants. In a national survey, NPR found that court fees are imposed across the country for things like public defenders, probation, or even “room and board”!
You know you’re dealing with a broken and inhumane system when you can arrest someone, charge them for their Constitutionally protected right to counsel, and then arrest them again when they can’t pay the court fines. To put the icing on the cake, in many cases, the fines are owed to private probation companies. Indeed, one of the defendants in the Biloxi lawsuit is the for-profit company, Judicial Correction Services, Inc. Thus, once again we see corporations profiting off of the suffering of America’s poor people, only this time in direct cooperation with law enforcement, and in direct violation of our most basic rights.
Qumotria Kennedy sums up the situation perfectly in her statement to the ACLU: “I hope that everybody knows that the system is trampling on poor people, and it’s not fair.”
Opinion columnist and former editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.