tv Inside Story Al Jazeera November 4, 2015 6:30pm-7:01pm EST
aljazeera.com/techknow. follow our expert contributors on twitter, facebook, instagram, google+ and more. >> you're caught with a minor infraction, improper lane change, let's say >> reporter: and it's more than you can pay right now. and in two dozen states, you can be sent to jail for not paying up. raising the money to pay is tough behind bars, and if you make partial payments, the amount owed grows and grows.
in some jurisdictions it's a 21st century bondage, chasing a fine that you can never completely pay off. when a fine is not fine. it's the "inside story." >> welcome to "inside story." i'm ray suarez. there's a lot of stuff that goes on in this country away from the gaze of america's middle class and above. and a punitive system of local law enforcement weighs heavily on those who barely have the money to meet it. the homeowner may face a heavy fine. look, it happens. you break the law, but this
system of collection, jail time, and balances and fees that grow even when you're paying them off, lands particularly heavy on low income people, and it can unravel their lives. here's aljazeera's jonathan martin. >> a single mother of two teens. it's a constant struggle to make ends meet. she takes home less than $700 a month in biloxi city, and it's making her life harder. >> it's not right to jail people for something that they can't pay. >> in july, kennedy was the passenger in a car that the police pulled over for running a stop sign. when the officer checked her i.d., he found that kennedy had an outstanding arrest warrant. she owed $1,000 in fines and fees for a traffic violation a year earlier, and kennedy was handcuffed and taken to jail.
>> it was scary and wondering what's going on, and where am i going? i stayed in jail for five nights, worried, cold. >> still, she said she couldn't pay, and she was put on probation and ordered to pay an additional $40 a month to a private probation company. >> so every month, they charged me $40. and if i can't pay my tickets, how can i pay an extra $40 every month. it's going up every month. >> her story is the latest to grab the attention of the american civil liberties union, which has filed a suit against the city of biloxi. they are accusing them of running a modern day debtors prison, where is people are put behind bars because they can't ford to pay fines. >> it's a two tiered justice system, where the poor are
sentenced more harshly because they don't have the money to pay the nines and fees, and then the company tacks on more fees, which raises the debt of what they owe. >> los to 27% of people in biloxi live in poverty. more than double six years ago, and they have increasingly depended on fines and fees for revenues, and it's not alone. there are lawsuits pending against six cities. several have been settled and have already led to policy changes. >> ferguson is probably the most visible that we have seen of a fender funded justice, and it came to light shortly after the tragic death of michael brown. that ferguson had actually ride on municipal court funds to close 20% of their entire nearly $13 million budget >> reporter: rebecca with the center for progress calls it a funder funded justice.
>> they're grasping at straws, trying to find the least popular constituency to go after, and they have settled on people of color. >> they say that they want to treat all defendants fairly under the law. she hopes that her lawsuit will help to prompt a change in policies. for now, she remains on probation, and in constant fear that she'll end up in jail. there's no way to pay back the $1,200 that she now owes. >> it's scary to walk around with it over your shoulders. >> reporter: jonathan martin, biloxi, mississippi. >> when a fine is not fine will begin on staffer attorney for the racial justice program at the american idol civil liberties union, they have been
collecting fines, and we can agree that kennedy should have paid her fine, can't we in the first place? >> absolutely, if a person has the means to pay, they are absolutely required to do so. but what is illegal and unfair is to jail someone after they have been able to pay that fine. >> in this case, do you see the offender basically chasing a balance that keeps going up and up? as their income doesn't go up, the amount that they're asked to pay down keeps getting bigger? >> absolutely. someone like miss kennedy, who is put on probation for the soul purpose of debt collection is by definition someone who is too poor to pay on the day she's sentenced. but once they're on probation, the companies tack on these
probation fees, and that means that the debt gets bigger and bigger and what that system does is penalize the poor more harshly than those with means, because the amount that they pay eventually is more than what someone who would pay on sentencing day would pay. but more of what we're seeing across the country, so many companies are collecting revenue, others for profit probation companies, and others on their own, and they're resorting to arrest and jailing. and i think that the feeling is that the fear of arrest and jailing will elicit money that people don't have that don't want to pay. but what this lawsuit and others have shown, some people civil don't have the money, and it's unpair and un-american to jail they will for not paying money that they don't have. >> what's the answer? we don't generally as a country levee penalties based on ability to pay. there are statutory penalties and fines for various kinds of
activity that are forbidden, and we don't work on a sliding scale, depending on your annual income. was the answer for low-income people who are convicted or found to be in violation of various local laws? >> the supreme court made clear more than 30 years ago that what judges should do is have a hearing, where they look into somebody's ability to pay, and their rain showers and most importantly, an alternative to incarceration. people should pay for their offenses but the punishment should if i want the crime. but what they emphasized is jailing people because they're poor should be a last resort. instead, judges should consider waiving the fees, or reducing the amount owed or community service as an option. that way, it deters the crime, but not penalizing people civil
because of their poverty. that runs counter to fairness and equality embedded in the 14th amend many. >> is this a long standing practice or something that is intensified as local governments have found it harder to pay their own bills? >> we have seen a rise in these sorts of coercive debt collection practices, including what we call modern day debtor's prison since 2010. and it appears that since the recession hitting budgets hard, that too many principalities, and counties, are scrambling to generate revenue by doing so with collecting fines and fees from people that can't pay on the day that they're sentenced. unfortunately, what it does is create incentive to collect the money no matter what, and that's where the be constitutional problem arises. >> on much of this, there's an undertow, an implication that
there's a racially disparate impact here, but not fines either. where does the racial aspect of this kind of collection come in? >> well, it comes in because we know that racial profiling and traffic enforcement and low level criminal enforcement is a real problem. both in ferguson, and in dekalb county, georgia, where the aclu filed a lawsuit this year, there was a clear connection between trying and walking while black and being poor. that is because it leads to more ticketing issued to people of color, particularly to black people. and because of the racial wealth gap, it's then more likely that a person of color will be unable to pay and subjected to these coercive debt collection practices. >> so you found if white people were picked up in the first place, they wouldn't be fined for the same behaviors
that black people are being cited for? >> that's not what we're saying. we're saying that in dekalb, where the population is more racial, one the most diverse counties in the entire state, what we saw, every single person jailed for failure to pay a fine or fee was african-american, and that's in a county where african-americans make up less than half of the population. >> the racial justice program at the american civil liberties union. what's going on here? is it something from poor people or is this something else at work here? stay with us. it's "inside story."
>> you're watching "inside story," and i'm ray suarez. when a fine is not fine. we're looking at systems of law enforcement and how many jurs kickses can attract poor people in an endless cycle of fines and fees, and land them not just in financial trouble, but in jail for even minor infractions. joining me now, sarah, the executive director for the center for human rights, and via skype, mario poparozzi, you
heard at the beginning of the system, describe the system in place in her view, and would your members agree that that's what they're up to? >> well, yes for the most part. i don't think that people are up to making money in the it governmental side of things, though it may appear that way. but i think that the private companies that have sprang up have figured out to make a profit on the collection of fines, and also add supervision fees, which as noted, increased the cost. i think that has a natural life of its own after a while. they think they're going to be cutting money by collecting the fines, and it's certainly not cheap top collect a fine, and not somebody who can't pay. and at the end of the day, putting somebody in a jail cell
or prison if they're on parole, to the tune of 180 to 2le $0 a day depending on where you are in the system doesn't make any sense at all. for those who think that it's helping us keep the lights on in the courthouse, we're bursting at the seams on the other side fiscally. the criminal justice system is not a system, but it's things thrown together. and people don't think of the costs in one component and how it will affect the other components of the system. >> let me jump in, because we invited judicial correction services to join us on the program today. and they declined the opportunity but sent us a statement. they said the contractual relationship and the services that we provide on the behalf of clients is a public record, and we contract with the services for collecting fines and enforcing probationary requirements by the court.
and sarah, just saying look, we just do what the local government asks us to do, and we collect our money as a fee for service. fair? >> what we see is that detector's prisons really proliferate when courts allow private companies to prioritize their goal of making money over the goal of public safety. and this is a problem that's happening across our country, and what's happening as a result of that is that it's really undermining the confidence, the public confidence in our court system. and i think that jcs does have to answer to that. >> but i guess there are two
kinds of fines, and i'll ask mario paparozzi about this later. and there's one meant to show what's wrong, and one meant to make money off of them. and i think that we're thinking about two different things here. >> you're absolutely right, ray. of course there's the court fine that a person gets, whether they have the means to pay it or not, a person gets the fine on the day of court. where things get differently, if you or i got a ticket for running a stop sign, we would likely write a check and not have to think about it again. but if we didn't have the means, we would be put on perhaps 12 months of private probation, and we would have to pay a supervision fee to the private company that would double or even triple the amount that we would pay ultimately. so this winds up creating a
two-tiered system of justice for people who have the means to pay, and people who do not. >> stay with us. these policies are locally imposed and locally enforced. how do you make sure that the punishment fits the infraction? how would you change a system that makes a punishment permanent? stay with us, it's "inside story."
>> welcome back to "inside story." i'm ray suarez. we had debtor's prisons in this country, based on the british model. these institutions held citizens who couldn't pay a variety of debts. these days, you can hear the term apply to places that jail indigent for very low income people, for failure to pay judgments or debts or fines. how it works is legally. does it work to demonstrate to the community that levee fines must be paid. and how do you make it stop?
back now with sarah with the center for human rights, and mario pap paparozzi. is this living out the idea of why we find people in the first place if we basically turn them over to private companies to enter this sometimes permanent cycle 6 repayment and chasing a fine that never gets built down? >> what you heard that they don't have the hour o resourceso collect fines, and that's why they're charged a fee, and that's absolutely ludicrous, and at the end of the day, nothing is being accomplished. if you put somebody on probation, and they continue to not pay their fine, and they go
out and commit a heinous fine the public is going to say you were negligence for not putting them in jail for a $50 fine. it's a broken model. it doesn't serve the purpose of punishment or restitution, but all its doing is generating income for somebody on the back of somebody who can't afford to pay the fine. >> but it does support the purpose for paying for government services in a place where they don't want to collect taxes to pay for those services. there's something appealing for getting people who do the wrong things to pay for the court system that watches them? >> it's great. but they don't have the money to do that. so at the end of the day, it costs the system far more money if they put people in jail for not paying in the first place, and all of the administrative revenue collection, and the supervisor vision, so you're
way in the hole at the end of the day. >> so how do you break that chain? that cycle? these systems are going on with the approval of a lot of local people. >> we have been passed legislation to reform some of these problematic practices. for example, there's a three-month cap on pay only probation, so a person only probation because they were too poor to pay the day of court, that can't go beyond three months. this is the only state in the country that has done it so far, but we hope that it will set a trend going forward. and the legislation increases transparency in the way these companies operate. they so frequently operate behind the cloak of secrecy that's central to their business model, and we, the public, ned other to know how
they're doing business. so these are some of the reforms that we can take going forward to progress in a better way. >> mario poparozzi, is there a way to say this doesn't work? >> i think that the legal presence, there's no empir call research anywhere, that shows recidivism collection, or no deterrent effect, and no deterrent on people unable to pay their fines because they don't have the money. people are going to eat and put a roof over their head and take care of their children, and they want to pay that fine very badly, but they're not going to be able to do that. and it's not going to happen. and there's no research to support this. >> sarah, do we know what people who can't pay their
fines are doing? >> we have heard the stories of the people paying their final nickels to these companies because they're so afraid to get locked up. one of our clients borrowed money to bake pies, and people are living out of cars and still trying to pay their fines because they're so afraid of going to jail. and it makes absolutely no sense to lock people up for charges like rolling through stop signs civil because they're too broke to pay their fines. >> and i guess when minor children are involved, the possibility for really going without meals, without clothes is dire. dire. i want to thank my guests, sarah, the executive director for the center for human rights, and mario paparozzi, the former president of the parole organization. i'll be back with a final moment on crime, punishment and out of sight, out of mind.
>> in 189 4, the french writer observed, the law for domestic equality forbids the rich, as well as the poor, to sleep under bridges and steal bread. similar knee in new orleans and louisiana in 2015, the law requires that rich and poor people who get nicked for a busted taillight or speeding ticket or late child support checks go to jail if they can't pay fines. but as france knew then as we do today, often poor people can't pay, and when they can't, it's all our business, since the law is being enforced in our name. many places, heavily concentrated in the south, have
worked hard to keep the states small, keep government cheap, and thus collect as much as possible in tacks, within their rights, but it can take us to unpredictable and uncomfortable places. because that sees many government functions contracted out to private business. in this case, privatized collections of fines lands many of the people trying to pay in a trap that doesn't meet the intent of enforcement, a never ending pit of debt that keeps growing even as you continue to make payments. some of the people thus punished are paying an invisible tax for being poor since they don't have the entire amount of the finally all at once, they may end up paying many times the original amount and still owe the entire fine and more. more. it applies equally to the rich and the poor. i'm ray suarez, that's the "inside story."
and the news continues now. >> this is aljazeera america, live from new york city, i'm richelle carey. and tony harris is on assignment. explicit concerns, what u.s. officials now believe about that russian airliner that exploded midair. >> staged suicide. to try to cover up a crime. the shocking details about an illinois police officer's death. police violence, something more than half of -- say that