Thousands in St. Louis land in ‘debtor prisons’ for not paying a court fee
The Atlantic magazine has a new report out about “debtor prisons” in the St. Louis area, and it’s nothing short of alarming. The story by Whitney Benne and Blake Strode traces the problem all the way back to the pre-Civil War Dred Scott decision and includes details about how fairly routine municipal tickets – like for “saggy pants” – end up putting people in jail.
The report notes that “… as the recent deluge of reports and litigation confirms, and many have long known, thousands of people throughout the St. Louis metropolitan area are routinely sent to jail because they cannot pay local court fines and fees. These people are poor, and they tend to be black. While there are many terms to describe this—including, importantly, unconstitutional, —there is one with historical resonance reserved for such a practice: debtors’ prison.
The offer background: “… today, the ‘debts’ that lead to incarceration take the form of monetary penalties established and enforced by municipal courts. For many people throughout the St. Louis region, the nightmare of debtors’ prison is a recurring one: Each time a payment or court date is missed, the court issues another warrant, and the individual is subject to arrest, jail, and additional fines and court fees.
It is a case study in how the “gray area” of government activity, in this case charges that are serious enough to land you in jail but not “criminal” in the sense you have a right to an attorney, end up with significant jail time. Prepare your outrage meter and read the entire report: Debtors’ Prison in 21st-Century America.