What are debtors' prisons?
It happens when courts lock people up for being unable to pay their legal debts. These might be fines for low-level offenses, like traffic violations, or fees tied to misdemeanor convictions, like probation fees.
Have you ever been jailed for failure to pay traffic fines or other fees?
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled more than 30 years ago that locking people up merely because they cannot afford to pay court fines is contrary to American values of fairness and equality embedded in the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The court made clear that judges cannot jail someone for failure to pay without first considering their ability to pay, efforts to acquire money, and alternatives to incarceration.
Yet across Mississippi, people are being locked up because they can't afford to pay traffic fines and fees. Cities across the country are scrambling to generate revenue, and they're doing it on the backs of poor people.
The ACLU of Mississippi and the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit in October 2015 against the city of Biloxi for running a modern-day Debtors' Prisons. The lawsuit sought to dismantle the two-tiered system of justice that punished the poorest, particularly people of color, more harshly than those with means, in flagrant violation of the Constitution.
In March 2016, we settled the lawsuit with the city, which agreed to adopt sweeping reforms to protect the rights of people who can't afford to pay fines imposed by the city court for minor offenses. We've seen other settlements in the city of Jackson and Hinds County as well. The Biloxi-styled reforms serve as a model for courts across Mississippi. The Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators also released a model bench card for courts nationwide that helps to end the practice of modern-day debtors' prisons.
But we know that this practice is not unique to Biloxi and continues to happen across Mississippi.
Have you or someone you know ever been jailed because you couldn't afford to pay traffic fines or other fees? Tell us your story!