Prominent civil rights, criminal justice groups join SPLC in support of federal ban on debtors’ prisons

Nearly three dozen prominent national and state civil rights and criminal justice groups have joined the SPLC in support of federal legislation that would end debtors’ prison practices nationwide and strip federal funding from municipalities engaging in them.

The organizations, which include the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, have signed a letter that was delivered today calling on members of Congress to back the legislation introduced by U.S. Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) in January.

If passed, the “End of Debtors’ Prison Act of 2016” would cut federal funds from municipalities that hire for-profit private probation companies to collect court debt. In many cases, these companies threaten low-income offenders with jail when they cannot make monthly payments for traffic fines and other minor offenses. This practice persists even though the United States abolished debtors’ prisons almost 200 years ago.

“This legislation will help ensure that ‘justice’ is not tied to a family’s bank account and that low-income people and communities of color no longer face the prospect of jail, job loss and financial ruin because of minor offenses such as traffic tickets,” the letter states. “We believe this legislation will provide much-needed relief to many poor and working-class families while helping restore faith in the American ideal of equal justice under the law.”

The bill is part of a groundswell of federal action against the unjust and often unconstitutional practices that target the nation’s poorest populations through court fees. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1983 in Bearden v. Georgia that it was unconstitutional for judges to send people to prison simply because they were too poor to pay. On Monday, the U.S. Department of Justice sent a letter to judges and court administrators calling on them to end unconstitutional court policies that unjustly punish the poor.

“The important federal legislation would help stop the modern-day practice of debtors’ prison and the perversion of our judicial system by private, for-profit companies that extort money from the poor by threatening them with jail time when they cannot pay court debt,” said Sam Brooke, SPLC deputy legal director. “Debtors’ prison practices and court fee schemes target the poorest and trap them in a cycle of debt and incarceration, creating a two-tiered system of justice for people with money and those without.”

Lawsuits by the SPLC and others have exposed the illegal practices of private probation companies, which profit from monthly fees that are tacked onto court debt payments. One company, Judicial Correction Services, ceased operations in Alabama in the fall of 2015 under pressure from the SPLC lawsuit alleging that it violated federal racketeering laws.

When the federal bill was introduced, SPLC client Harriet Cleveland – a Montgomery grandmother who was thrown in jail for two weeks when she could not afford to pay her traffic fines to JCS – addressed congressional staffers about her ordeal. Hear her full story. She lost her car and house trying to come up with money. An SPLC lawsuit ended after a settlement to change the city’s practices.

The following organizations also signed the letter backing the bill: Advancing Justice - Asian Law Caucus; American Civil Liberties Union; Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, AFL-CIO (APALA); Asian Prisoner Support Committee; Center for New Community; Ella Baker Center for Human Rights; Justice For Families; Kentucky Equal Justice Center; LatinoJustice PRLDEF; Lawyers' Committee; Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights; Mindful Peacebuilding; Mothers of Incarcerated Sons & Daughters; Mississippi Center for Justice; NAACP; National Association of Social Workers; National Center for Transgender Equality; National LGBTQ Task Force Action Fund; North Carolina Justice Center; PICO National Network, LIVE FREE Campaign; Pretrial Justice Institute; Public Justice Center; Real Cost of Prisons Project; Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law; SC Appleseed Legal Justice Center; Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC); Southern Center for Human Rights; Tennessee Justice Center; The Sentencing Project and the Southern Poverty Law Center.