Opinion: It’s time to end debtors’ prison

We support state Rep. Andy Gipson’s House Bill 387, which prevents the immediate incarceration of Mississippians for non-payment of fines.

And that’s significant for many reasons – not the least  because we hardly agree with anything Rep. Gipson says or does.

Section 1 of the bill states, “Incarceration shall not automatically follow the nonpayment of a fine, restitution, court order or court costs.

Incarceration may be employed only after the court has conducted a hearing and examined the reasons for nonpayment and finds, on the record, that the defendant was not indigent or could have made payment but refused to do so.

 The bill requires a presumption of indigence if the accused’s income is less than 125 percent of the federal poverty level and lacks more than $10,000 in assets, such as a car, household assets, clothing, etc.

This bill, passed by the House of Representatives, should be approved by the Senate and signed into law.

It takes aim at a disturbing trend in Mississippi, indeed throughout the nation, in which lower-income citizens get trapped into a never-ending escalation of fines they can’t pay until they eventually wind up in jail, where, of course, they have even less ability to pay.

It’s the modern-day version of debtors’ prison. Sadly, counties and municipalities are increasingly using these huge fines to fund operations, creating a growing prison industry with its own exorbitant costs.

Do a quick Google search for “modern-day debtors’ prisons” and you will find dozens of reports and studies by legitimate think tanks, national criminal justice system professional organizations, media and government agencies condemning this growing problem and calling for reform.

Locking up poor, disadvantaged people for their inability to pay fines is a noxious practice that needs curtailing.

We’re not talking about violent lawbreakers. We’re talking about organizationally challenged people who are struggling in their daily lives who end up trapped in a fine-based municipal criminal justice system that quickly overwhelms them.

Earlier this year, the Mississippi Department of Public Safety settled a lawsuit by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and announced the end of automatically suspending driver’s licenses for failure to pay court-ordered non-driving fines, thus restoring driving privileges to 100,000 Mississippians. To raise money, DPS had recently added a steep reinstatement fee, suspending licenses without adequate notification.

“No one will lose their license if the only reason they failed to pay a traffic ticket is that they simply did not have enough money,” Sam Brooke, SPLC deputy legal director, said after the settlement.

In these times of declining tax revenues, cities and government agencies are desperate to raise money.

But tacking on countless fines and fees without proper notification and then locking up the poor who cannot pay are not the proper ways to fund government.