Three years ago, Gina Ray, who is now 31 and unemployed, was fined $179 for speeding. She failed to show up at court (she says the ticket bore the wrong date), so her license was revoked.
When she was next pulled over, she was, of course, driving without a license. By then her fees added up to more than $1,500. Unable to pay, she was handed over to a private probation company and jailed — charged an additional fee for each day behind bars.
For that driving offense, Ms. Ray has been locked up three times for a total of 40 days and owes $3,170, much of it to the probation company. Her story, in hardscrabble, rural Alabama, where Krispy Kreme promises that “two can dine for $5.99,” is not about innocence.
It is, rather, about the mushrooming of fines and fees levied by money-starved towns across the country and the for-profit businesses that administer the system. The result is that growing numbers of poor people, like Ms. Ray, are ending up jailed and in debt for minor infractions.
“With so many towns economically strapped, there is growing pressure on the courts to bring in money rather than mete out justice,” said Lisa W. Borden, a partner in Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, a large law firm in Birmingham, Ala., who has spent a great deal of time on the issue. “The companies they hire are aggressive. Those arrested are not told about the right to counsel or asked whether they are indigent or offered an alternative to fines and jail. There are real constitutional issues at stake.”
In a 2010 study, the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law examined the fee structure in the 15 states — including California, Florida and Texas — with the largest prison populations. It asserted: “Many states are imposing new and often onerous ‘user fees’ on individuals with criminal convictions. Yet far from being easy money, these fees impose severe — and often hidden — costs on communities, taxpayers and indigent people convicted of crimes. They create new paths to prison for those unable to pay their debts and make it harder to find employment and housing as well as to meet child support obligations.”
The New York Times article goes on to describe how the courts are turning to private companies to handle probation services and fee collection, and how these companies are making their earnings off the back of the poor who are fined, charged and sentenced. In short, the law enforcement and judicial arms are again being used as a profit center for private companies and the officials who take their slice of the proceeds.
Historically speaking, this public/private profiteering at the expense of ordinary Americans lacking in the resources needed to do anything about it has had its greatest effect on the black American community. Today, Americans of all stripes who often don't have the means to take care of expensive fines or discrepancies in paperwork are now being placed into a form of debt peonage, which entails a cycle of stacked fees and incarceration for not paying those fees, many of which were accrued while they were incarcerated.
There's nothing new under this sun. In December 1865, Congress adopted the Thirteenth Amendment, one of three "Reconstruction-era Amendments." This amendment was principally responsible for officially outlawing slavery as experienced by millions of people prior to and during the Civil War:
Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
Please note the highlighted phrase, as it plays a big role in the emergence of the Convict Lease system.
In the post-Reconstruction era of the Deep South, the relative new-found freedom of millions of ex-slaves and other black Americans were sharply curtailed by newly-established Jim Crow laws and Black Codes all across the south. Meanwhile, industry was replacing the cotton industry as an economic driver, which meant moneyed interests were constantly in search of cheap or damn-near-free labor. Government officials began using vagrancy laws and other minor violations to issue steep fines and issue lengthy sentences to poor black American men and a few of their white counterparts. These people would then be pressed into labor and leased to various corporations and entrepreneurs until they "completed their sentences" or manage to pay their debts.
Douglass Blackmon's definitive book on this issue, "Slavery by Another Name," sums up the issue thus:
Under laws enacted specifically to intimidate blacks, tens of thousands of African Americans were arbitrarily arrested, hit with outrageous fines, and charged for the costs of their own arrests. With no means to pay these ostensible “debts,” prisoners were sold as forced laborers to coal mines, lumber camps, brickyards, railroads, quarries and farm plantations. Thousands of other African Americans were simply seized by southern landowners and compelled into years of involuntary servitude. Government officials leased falsely imprisoned blacks to small-town entrepreneurs, provincial farmers, and dozens of corporations—including U.S. Steel Corp.—looking for cheap and abundant labor. Armies of "free" black men labored without compensation, were repeatedly bought and sold, and were forced through beatings and physical torture to do the bidding of white masters for decades after the official abolition of American slavery.
In short, the clause "except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted" was used as a gaping loophole as a way to revive a form of forced labor, not just for the benefit of moneyed interests who indeed benefited financially, but as a sop to a people born and bred to believe their black counterparts were naturally lazy and that only work via forced labor was the way to keep them "productive." This form of debt peonage was thought to have been done away with after World War II, but it managed to get a new lease on life during the 1980s. It currently survives thanks in part to the proliferation of private judicial services that manage everything from prisons to probation and drug testing.
In an era where an outright refusal to properly fund the courts system collides with a ragged economy and a continuing thirst for punitive justice measures, private judicial services are flourishing, enticing states with a seemingly low initial overhead and the promise of savings to both governments and taxpayers. However, recent studies have shown the supposed savings to be negligible, if not non-existent. As noted in the article, many jurisdictions are using fees and surcharges as a new form of funding, usually in lieu of slashed state and local funding.
There's also the risk of corruption among state and federal judicial members and these private corporations. This comment from Eric D. sheds light on the corruption that occurs when private profits collude with harsh public punishment:
As I mentioned in my earlier text, this is just the tip of the iceberg in Alabama. In the county adjacent to where Childersburg is located, Shelby County, the only Judge in that county to hear felony cases has set up a "work release." This "work release" which is in fact a jail is run by the judge's sister-in-law. You can be incarcerated there for anything from child support or speeding tickets up to drug distribution.
The deal is you are jailed and allowed to leave only for work or some project that the judge's sister in law decides to use her free labor for. If you can find a job under their many constraints then your entire paycheck must be made payable to jailers and at a later date the judge's sister in law will deduct 40% of your GROSS check, subtract whatever they choose for fines and fees including charges for drug tests that they administer at will and you get the difference if there is anything left.
Because it is private it does not fall under Dept of Corrections guidelines. These inmates are required to purchase their own food although in theory bread and ham is given once a day. I personally know a man who spent 24 months incarcerated eating ham sandwiches every day, only to find out that he was held an extra 7 months after his restitution was paid but was not remitted by the judge's sister in law. And guess who hears any complaints? That's right, the same judge who made sure his sister in law runs the place. The Good Ole Boy system is still just fine in AL.
The corruption is endemic, even at the juvenile level. In 2011, a Pennsylvania judge was sentenced to 28 years in prison for shipping over 4,000 kids, some as young as ten, off to two privately run youth detention centers, in exchange for over $1 million in kickbacks from the private prison company charged with running the facilities.
Many private prisons also receive federal funding for housing and feeding inmates, which these prisons often do in a substandard manner. Others facilitate overcrowding and poor staffing to cut costs and pocket profits. One private firm actually required one state to have a 90-percent occupancy rate before it could take advantage of a sweetheart deal:
The proposal seeks to build upon a deal reached last fall in which the company purchased the 1,798-bed Lake Erie Correctional Institution from the state of Ohio for $72.7 million. Ohio officials lauded the September transaction, saying that private management of the facility would save a projected $3 million annually.
Linda Janes, chief of staff for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, said the purchase came at time when the state was facing a $8 billion shortfall. The $72.7 million prison purchase was aimed at helping to fill a $188 million deficit within the corrections agency.
Ohio's deal requires the state to maintain a 90% occupancy rate, but Janes said that provision remains in effect for 18 months — not 20 years — before it can be renegotiated. As part of the deal, Ohio pays the company a monthly fee, totaling $3.8 million per year.
It's little wonder the arrest rate for young black males in the United States remains at least eight times higher than their white counterparts. It's hard trying to maintain an ideal level of occupancy. It's also a part of why the War on Drugs (also known as the War on Weed) is slated to continue for the foreseeable future. After all, there has to be some way to keep the prisons full.
The whole idea of having your finances, job prospects, reputation and personal freedom boned thanks to fines, surcharges and fees that stack up and prove financially insurmountable should scare just about anyone. However, some people don't see any of this as that big of a deal. After all, you should have obeyed the law. Problem is, there are so many laws on the books today that even the most innocent and law-abiding citizen can get fined or go to jail over a law he or she wasn't even aware existed.
This is neo-peonage, in a nutshell. Lower and middle-class Americans who are often one or two paychecks away from poverty are financially devastated by fines and fees. If they can't pay up in time, they're put in jail and often put to work in a revitalized Convict Lease System for extraordinarily cheap. If B.B. Comer was to somehow time-travel to today's Childersburg to see the spectacle as told by Eric D., he'd be right at home with what he'd find.