Modern Day Debtors Prisons in Los Angeles

July 6, 2012  •  Jerod Gunsberg, Los Angeles Criminal Defense Lawyer

As a criminal defense attorney in Los Angeles, I sometimes feel that I live in an alternate reality.  On a weekly basis, I experience things that most well-educated and well-read people are confident don’t exist anymore.  One of those is debtors’ prisons.  Surely, you are thinking to yourself, they are a relic of the past.  And officially they are.  But in practice many court systems, including Los Angeles Superior Court, impose fines and penalties on indigent defendants and those who have been convicted of minor offenses that have the effect of imprisoning them for failing to pay their debts.

The New York Times reported on July 2 about for profit companies that help generate revenues for court systems by collecting fines.  The article, entitled, “Poor Land in Jail as Companies Add Huge Fees for Probation,” focuses on Alabama, and details the flight of Gina Ray, who was fined $179 for a speeding ticket, but three years later, after the imposition of a variety of fines and penalties, owes more than $3,000.

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 She failed to show up at court (she says the ticket bore the wrong date), so her license was revoked.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 easy to dismiss what happened to Ms. Ray as a by-product of living in Alabama.  But this is also a problem throughout California and in Los Angeles in particular.  Faced with budgetary pressures, state and local governments are increasingly turning to fines and penalties as a way to finance court systems.  A report from the Brennan Center for Justice entitled, “Criminal Justice Debt: A Barrier To Reentry” details disturbing practices in 15 states including California.  For example, California Penal Code section 1214.1(A) authorizes courts to impose a $300 civil assessment for people who fail to appear in court or who fail to pay a fine ordered by the court.  Los Angeles Superior Court imposes this civil assessment.

If you’re wondering about the wisdom of imposing fines on poor people for their failure to pay existing fines, you aren’t alone.  Unfortunately, this isn’t a question of sound public policy or wisdom.  Too often, a financial incentive exists to create a cycle that makes it hard for the poor to escape the criminal justice system.  The New York Times article describes Judicial Correction Services, Inc., a Georgia-based company that, according to its website, helps provide courts with “a comprehensive solution to recidivism or just a boost in the fine collections.”

The company claims but there efforts impose costs on tax payers, but this seems to be true only in the narrowest sense.  Much of the fines imposed on Gina Ray were payable to this for profit company. So what do you suppose happens when people faced with ever increasing fines have to decide whether to decide whether to pay their fines or the child support obligations?  Who bears the cost of that?  The community at large, which, of course, includes tax payers.  And what happens when people can’t pay their debt burden.  Some, as outlined in the Brennan Center report, “choose” to go to prison as a way of paying off their debts.

People who are on probation are faced with a cycle of fines and penalties that can land them in prison. Yes, this is really going on in the United States in 2012.

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