A landmark sign of an old debtor's prison in Virginia (Courtesy of Clyde Fitch Report)
A landmark sign of an old debtor's prison in Virginia (Courtesy of Clyde Fitch Report)

Being poor is challenging enough, but some states such as Maryland and Missouri have continued to punish those of lesser means.

In Maryland, courts have issued more than 1,800 orders for arrest in debt cases and 39 residents spent one to 14 days in prison in debt cases, according to the Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition, a statewide organization that advances and protects the interests of consumers through education, advocacy and training programs.

A federal class-action suit claims thousands of people in Missouri were jailed because they couldn’t pay off fines — a debtor’s prison-like conundrum for the poor.

Pro Publica reported that four years after the suit was filed, the plaintiffs are still waiting, and wondering if the deck is stacked against them.

The report detailed the plight of Tonya DeBerry, who in January 2014 was driving through an unincorporated area of St. Louis County, Missouri, when a police officer pulled her over for having expired license plates.

“After discovering that DeBerry, 51, had several outstanding traffic tickets from three jurisdictions, the officer handcuffed her and took her to jail,” Pro Publica reported. “To be released, she was told, she would have to pay hundreds of dollars in fines she owed the county, according to her account in a federal lawsuit and — even after her family came up with the money, DeBerry wasn’t released from custody.”

Because she owed fines and fees to the cities of Ferguson and Jennings, she remained jailed and her attorney likened it to “being held for ransom.”

Despite a centuries-old Supreme Court ruling that outlawed the practice, debtor’s prison remains very much alive in America, experts said.

“The crisis that is going on in Missouri is taking place all around the country — it is a rising issue amongst people who cannot afford to pay court fees and, or fines,” said attorney Dameka L. Davis of the Davis Legal Center in Hollywood, Fla.

“I believe the more appropriate action is to implement programs and services that are free or offer a person to do community service in lieu of paying fines or fees,” Davis said. “Our system is perpetuating a money-based system, which in turn systematically affects minorities and people of color.”

Matt C. Pinsker, an adjunct professor of homeland security and criminal justice in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University, said the problem runs deeper than in Missouri.

“The American people would be horrified if they knew of just how many laws still exist which send poor people to prison over their inability to pay fines, court costs, and related expenses,” Pinsker said. “It is a tragedy and absurdity that we will essentially have debtors’ prisons here in the United States of America.”

In DeBerry’s case, Pro Publica reported that after the Michael Brown killing, “the city slowly stopped jailing people for not being able to pay fines as the news media showed the victims were primarily Black and the Justice Department made clear that what Ferguson had been doing was wrong.”

Still, the lawsuit remains unresolved with the city seeking dismissal.

In 2018, the American Civil Liberties Union detailed more than 1,000 cases in 26 states in which judges, acting on the request of a collection company, issued warrants for people they claimed owed money for “ordinary debts, such as student loans, medical expenses, unpaid rent and utility bills.”

The ACLU said it’s a system that breeds coercion and abuse.

“With little government oversight, debt collectors, backed by arrest warrants and wielding bounced check demand letters, can frighten people into paying money that may not even be owed,” the report said.

Few tools are as coercive or as effective as the threat of incarceration, the authors wrote.

For example, a 75-year-old woman subsisting on $800 monthly Social Security checks went without her medications in order to pay the fees she believed were required to avoid jail time for bouncing a check.

And as one lawyer in Texas, who has sought arrests of student loan borrowers who are in arrears, said, “It’s easier to settle when the debtor is under arrest,” the report’s authors found.

The people who are jailed or threatened with jail often are the most vulnerable Americans living paycheck to paycheck, one emergency away from financial catastrophe, the report said.

Many were struggling to recover after the loss of a job, mounting medical bills, the death of a family member, a divorce, or an illness.

“They included retirees or people with disabilities who are unable to work. Some were subsisting solely on Social Security, unemployment insurance, disability benefits, or veterans’ benefits — income that is legally protected from outstanding debt judgments,” the report’s authors wrote.

Stacy M. Brown is a senior writer for The Washington Informer and the senior national correspondent for the Black Press of America. Stacy has more than 25 years of journalism experience and has authored...

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