In June 2017, the American Civil Liberties Union in South Carolina issued a lawsuit against Lexington County with an accusation it is continuing to run modern day “debtor prisons.” The lawsuit aimed to keep the courts from putting people in jail because they are not able to pay fines or fees.
The ACLU believes that the actions in Lexington County imprison people simply because they live below the poverty line. There were five plaintiffs who the ACLU claimed were jailed for weeks without warning due to the fact they did not pay fines for misdemeanor court fees and traffic tickets.
Support to end debtors’ prisons
In August of 2018, the House of Delegates of the American Bar Association’s held a vote to adopt guidelines for ending debtors’ prisons. The vote passed unanimously. The guidelines directly specify that courts stop criminalize people because they are poor. The organization has 400,000 members and this the most extensive policy position they have taken in 15 years involving criminal justice.
The adopted guidelines
The ABA’s guidelines came from a task force that initially came together to investigate the questioning of the legal system by the public after incidents of police brutality and killings of minorities. A sub group was formed that decided to take a strong stand on court practices that punish people for non-payment of court fees.
Supreme Court ruling
It was more than 30 years ago that the Supreme Court ruled that the courts cannot punish people with jail time because they are too poor to pay court fees. The ruling left enough ambiguity that judges must sometimes make challenging decisions of who really is poor and who is just refusing to pay.
The ABA has shown through its set of guidelines that it believes the integrity of the legal system may be question if these actions continue. The issue of going to jail for failure to pay a fee or fine could continue to be questioned for the foreseeable future.