Posted 5 years ago on June 20, 2014, 9:11 p.m. EST by LeoYoh
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Tackling Debtors' Prisons: Reflecting on the Death of Eileen DiNino
Friday, 20 June 2014 11:28
By James Kilgore, Truthout | News Analysis
On Saturday, June 7, Eileen DiNino died in a Berks County, Penn., jail.
An unemployed mother of seven, the 55-year-old DiNino was doing a 48-hour sentence for failing to pay truancy fines. According to an AP report, over the course of several years, her debt to local authorities amounted to about $2,000. While initial fines arose from truancy violations by her children, a subsequent spate of associated mandatory fees drove her deeper into debt. These charges included $8 for a "judicial computer project"; $60 for Berks constable; $40 for "summary costs" for several court offices; and $10 for postage. Local lawyer Richard Guida remarked: "In recent years, the government has found all sorts of interesting ways to extract money from people."
The death of DiNino is another tragic episode compelling mainstream America to pull its head out of the sand and examine how the criminal justice debt cycle punishes the poor.
Perhaps the first glimmers of light appeared with the 2010 reports from the Brennan Center and the ACLU. Both documents chronicled a set of compelling stories, emphasizing the apparent irrationality of the now common practice of putting people behind bars for traffic fines, loitering violations, as well as failure to pay contrived court charges like those levied on DiNino. The ACLU labeled this the resurgence "debtors' prisons," an institution supposedly outlawed almost two centuries ago.
The present year has brought another flurry of reports and exposés. NPR did a broad brush set of stories entitled "Guilty and Charged" touching on a range of fines and fees. Human Rights Watch added a new dimension in February with an in-depth study of profiteering by privatized probation companies in the South. Finally, The New York Times joined the chorus in May with an op-ed asserting, "It is difficult to imagine a more unjust and counterproductive way of paying for such a system than to dump its costs on those least able to afford them."
While research and media exposure are beginning to elaborate the complexities of a punitive regime that has been hammering poor people for more than two decades, analysis to date has overlooked some key issues. Typically, criminal justice debt reporting focuses on apparently irrational laws and rogue companies that profiteer at the expense of the poor. However, the criminal justice debt cycle is not an aberration.
Criminal Justice Debt and the Changing State
The rise of criminal justice debt is consistent with the overall restructuring of state functions since the early 1980s. This restructuring has featured reduced spending on welfare programs, the upgrading of the security functions of the state and retooling government departments and programs to emphasize private sector-style cost efficiencies. The expansion of this neoliberal approach has meant the shrinking and shuttering of state-funded facilities and programs that served the poor, leaving millions vulnerable to the criminal justice system.
For example, services like mental health treatment have been stripped from communities and essentially relocated inside carceral institutions. According to a report from the Treatment Advocacy Center, in 2012, more than 350,000 people with serious mental illnesses resided in the nation's prisons and jails, about 10 times as many as those in state mental health facilities. Furthermore, the scaling back of public housing, tighter restrictions on TANF (Temporary Assistance for Need Families) and the defunding of childcare have combined with the application of punitive local laws to help book the poor a place behind bars. The Brennan Center report documented the most extreme examples of such local laws. They include ordinances against sleeping or lying down in public, bans on "aggressive" panhandling, even the outlawing of the sharing of food in public spaces to halt efforts by groups like Food Not Bombs to feed the hungry. Silicon Valley and several other California locales have recently made it unlawful for a person to live in their car.
Debt and Jail Construction
Largely missing from accounts of legislation has been the link to massive spending on jail construction, a major contributor to county and municipal financial woes. Local jail capacity expanded from 389,171 in 1990 to 891,271 by 2013, a period during which daily jail population counts doubled. However, because jail stays are typically short, static figures fail to capture the scope of the local dragnet. In 2013, 11.5 million people spent time in jail, about one in 20 adults. Meeting the rising demand for incarceration accounted for a big chunk of the increase in local criminal justice spending, which ballooned from $21 billion in 1982 to $109 billion in 2006. These growing expenditures forced local authorities to seek new funding sources to expand carceral capacity. Recovering costs from users, which avoided unpopular property tax hikes, became a favored solution.
The NPR study examined "user" fees for criminal justice in all 50 states plus the District of Columbia. Their survey revealed how a punitive financial system has emerged virtually everywhere. According to their findings:
In at least 43 states and the District of Columbia, people can be billed for using a public defender.
In at least 41 states, prisoners can be charged room and board for jail and prison stays.
In at least 44 states, individuals who have been released can be billed for their own probation and parole supervision.
And in all states except Hawaii and the District of Columbia, there's a daily fee for the electronic monitoring devices imposed as a condition of sentence, bail, probation or parole.
While the majority of these measures are implemented at the county or municipal level, local actors often need enabling laws from state legislators to sanction actions like charging for public defenders or electronic monitoring. To add more revenue to the user fee stream, county jails themselves frequently add further charges on "clients," such as exorbitant prices for phone calls to family, higher than market rates for commissary goods, co-pays for medical services and fees for video visitation.