Are debtors' prisons returning?

Obama's push for criminal justice reform
Obama's push for criminal justice reform

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Story highlights

  • Detaining ex-convicts for debt undermines our fundamental belief in redemption, authors say
  • Study: About 10 million Americans collectively owe $50 billion-plus in outstanding fines, fees

Van Jones is president of Dream Corps and Rebuild the Dream, which promote innovative solutions for America's economy. He was President Barack Obama's green jobs adviser in 2009. Follow him on Twitter @VanJones68. Jessica Jackson is a human rights attorney and the national director of #cut50, a national bipartisan initiative to reduce America's incarcerated population by 50% over the next 10 years. The opinions expressed in this commentary are theirs.

(CNN)Debtors' prison is supposed to be illegal in the United States. But in too many American cities, it has made a shocking return.

This week, a bipartisan group of leaders, and a few A-list celebrities, gathered at the White House to do something about it.
    Van Jones
    Jessica Jackson
    The problem: Faced with ballooning costs of America's massive incarceration industry, local jurisdictions have started billing people for time they spend behind bars. They are also charging them for electronic supervision services. Not to mention DNA collection, juries and constitutionally mandated public defenders.
    The trouble here is obvious: Recently incarcerated people often do not have jobs. Therefore, they cannot possibly keep up with an increasingly aggressive list of fees and fines.
    So believe it or not: Cities are throwing them BACK into jail -- for not being able to pay!
    From Detroit to Dallas, America's criminal justice system is trapping poor people in a perpetual cycle of prisons and poverty.
    Consider these cases:
    In Ferguson, Missouri, the equivalent of 75% of the city's population had outstanding arrest warrants. These warrants were not for committing a crime but for failing to appear in court or not paying traffic and parking violations. According to a U.S. Department of Justice report, in a city of 21,000 residents, the Ferguson Police Department issued 33,000 arrests warrants for unpaid tickets in 2013 alone.
    In Illinois, the Department of Corrections charged a man $20,000 to cover the cost of his incarceration, according to the Chicago Tribune. Homeless and practically destitute after recently serving a 15-month prison sentence for a nonviolent drug offense, he had no ability to pay his fine. If he had not died in June, it is likely he would have been locked up for his inability to pay.
    Sheriff: Incarceration should be the last thing we do
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    In Alabama, defendants who owed fines for charges such as hunting after dark or marijuana possession stood in front of Judge Marvin Wiggins and received three options: Pay their fine, donate blood or go to jail, according to The New York Times.
    And it gets worse. On top of the stated fees and fines, many jurisdictions are adopting practices employed by shady payday lenders, not public safety agencies. For example, Washington state charges a 12% interest rate on all its criminal debt. Florida adds a 40% fee that goes into the pockets of a private collections agency. And in Arizona, an 83% surcharge turns a $500 fee into a $915 bill. A portion of those proceeds go to finance electoral campaigns, creating a strong incentive to preserve the status quo.
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    One study revealed that most people with a felony conviction can expect to be saddled with an average $11,000 in debt. In total, about 10 million Americans collectively owe more than $50 billion in outstanding fines and fees. Repaying this debt would be challenging for the average American family, half of whom would have trouble finding $400 on short notice. But for those already struggling to get on their feet after prison, the debt from fees and fines often carry carries with it an air of impossibility.
    The current system has dire consequences for millions of Americans that can be permanently debilitating and perpetuates a cycle of poverty and incarceration. Failure to pay fines can result in lost income, depressed credit ratings, housing instability, suspended drivers' licenses, arrest warrants, loss of Social Security benefits or further incarceration. These consequences can permanently affect an individual's life and reduce the ability ever to get his or her life back on track.
    The system is not supposed to work this way. A Supreme Court ruling in 1983 prohibited putting people in prison for failure to pay their fines and fees without an indigency hearing. And yet at least 15 states have found ways to ignore this mandate. They have made this a standard practice.
    Trey Radel: Focus on rehabilitation, not incarceration
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    Trey Radel: Focus on rehabilitation, not incarceration 06:27
    The problem is not only a constitutional issue. It undermines our fundamental belief in redemption and a fair shot at the American Dream.
    There is hope for a way out. The White House forum for analyzing this issue will yield some model policies for jurisdictions to follow.
    The Sunlight Foundation is supporting the collection of data so we can understand the scope of the problem and how we can better address the issue. The Laura and John Arnold Foundation is funding a comprehensive research and litigation-based approach to reform. And #cut50 is dedicated to highlighting this injustice and amplifying leadership from around the country.
    Together, we can roll back these policies that ultimately have little to do with public safety. Our challenge strikes at the heart of our criminal justice system: Are we a nation of second chances, or will we sit by and watch a perpetual punishment machine run wild?
    Let us ensure our elected representatives and government agencies live up to the highest values of our society.