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Keeping The Poor Impoverished And Incarcerated

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While payday loans can help some people out of a financial jam, they tend to prey on the poor and create a usury situation. Now that same predatory financial monster is moving into a new territory: bonds, courts fees and fines.

Take the case of Kevin Thompson, a 19-year-old who was fined for speeding and failure to renew his license. Although he had a job, he could not afford to pay the $810 fine the court handed down. What happens next sounds Kafka-esque:

The judge handed his case over to Judicial Correction Services, Inc., a for-profit corporation that oversees the collection of fines and the probation of people who have committed minor infractions, such as traffic tickets.

Thompson met with his parole officer from JCS weekly and made payments totaling $85, most of which he borrowed because he was unemployed. JCS kept $30 of those payments as a fee, so that amount didn’t count toward the total owed. Eventually, Thompson told his probation officer that he was unable to pay, and she informed him that he would have to appear before a judge to have his parole revoked. He ended up in a jail cell for owing $838 in fines and fees.

Who won here? Certainly not the young man whose crimes were rather ordinary and non-violent. Certainly not the taxpayers who had to pay to keep this young man in jail. No, the clear winner is Judicial Correction Services.

According to Jessica Pishko at The Atlantic, these types of services are becoming quite common.

Private-probation companies operate as debt collectors with handcuffs—and little oversight. According to a report issued last year by Human Rights Watch, “pay-only” probation practices specifically exploit those who are unable to pay a fine on a set court date and must agree to make installments. These installment payments include overhead fees that go directly to the company and compound over time. As a result, someone who is unemployed and lacks resources will ultimately owe more money than someone who is able to pay on their court date.

While courts tend to like out-sourcing these problems to organizations like Judicial Correction Services, these companies clearly are making money off the backs of the poor. This does nothing to rehabilitate anyone who may be in need of rehabilitation, and in Thompson’s case, kept a young man (who had a job and lost it) locked up for relatively minor infractions. This type of system harkens back to the “debtor’s prison” system. How is one supposed to pay fees and fines at usury rates if they are locked up and cannot work?

Read “Locked Up for Being Poor” at The Atlantic.

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Elise Hilton Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.

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