One day after President Donald Trump invited Republican lawmakers to the White House to celebrate the historic tax cuts they passed for corporations and wealthy business leaders, his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, quietly reinstated a draconian policy that effectively serves as a regressive tax on America’s poorest people.
A symbol of Victorian England’s inequitable nature made infamous by Charles Dickens, debtors’ prisons were banned in the United States in 1833. The Supreme Court has affirmed the unconstitutionality of jailing those too poor to pay debts on three different occasion in the last century, finding that the 14th Amendment prohibits incarceration for non-payment of exorbitant court-imposed fines or fees without an assessment of a person’s ability to pay and alternatives for those who cannot. “Punishing a person for his poverty” is illegal, the Court said. Yet in recent years the modern-day equivalent of debtors’ prisons have returned, as cities have grown to rely on a punishing regime of fines and fees imposed on their own residents as a major stream of revenue.
Routine traffic tickets or even overdue student loan payments can set off a cycle of debt that also includes the suspension of a driver’s license or professional license and, in some cases, jail time. A suspended driver’s license makes it nearly impossible to get to work. When a person can’t pay, courts add more fines on top of the original. If those fees aren’t paid, a jail sentence is imposed. Incarceration is also often meted out to low-income defendants facing misdemeanor charges who cannot afford to pay bond ahead of a court date. It should come as little surprise that the policing tactics that have been enacted to generate revenue through this debtors’ system disproportionately impact people of color.
The protests in Ferguson,…