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‘Incarceration if you’re poor, payment if you’re rich’: Reports warn of debtors’ prisons

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An NPR investigation into how judges assess fees and fines to defendants has revealed that many who enter the courtroom essentially end up in “debtor’s prisons.”

Strictly speaking, the Supreme Court outlawed debtor’s prisons with the 1983 Bearden v. Georgia decision, which held that a judge can only impose a jail sentence for failure to pay if he or she believes the defendant is able, but unwilling to pay.

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“To do otherwise would deprive the probationer of his conditional freedom simply because, through no fault of his own, he cannot pay,” the Court decided. “Such a deprivation would be contrary to the fundamental fairness required by the Fourteenth Amendment.”

According to the NPR investigation, judges are increasingly unable to determine whether defendants are unable or merely unwilling to pay their fees and fines. NPR reports that some judges demand defendants relinquish their cell phone service or quit smoking in order to pay their debt.

And the situation is not improving. NPR noted that “defendants are charged for many government services that were once free, including those that are constitutionally required.” The ACLU and Human Rights Watch have documented how the rise of the for-profit prison system in a time of economic downturn has put pressure on states to incarcerate more defendants for increasingly trivial offenses, including the inability to pay court fees and court-ordered fines.

One judge interviewed by NPR, Benton County, Washington’s Robert Swisher, told NPR that defendants “come in wearing expensive jackets,” referring to ones bearing the logos of NFL teams, “or maybe a thousand dollars’ worth of tattoos on their arms. And they say, ‘I’m just living on handouts.'”

He said that he tells such defendants that if these expensive items were a gift, they should ask the giver to provide them with cash to pay their court fees instead — a position that sidesteps the question of how much money a defendant has available to them at the current moment. A jacket or tattoo could have been purchased years earlier, when a defendant had a regular income or was in a stable relationship with a potential benefactor.

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Miriam Aukerman, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, told NPR that “it’s not that it’s wrong to charge people money as a way to punish them. But there have to be alternatives for people who can’t pay. And that alternative cannot be: incarceration if you’re poor, payment if you’re rich.”

She believes judges may not use all of the available means at their disposal — including assigning community service or waiving the fines and fees entirely — to avoid sending defendants to prison.

Danny Bearden, whose case led to the Supreme Court decision, told NPR that “there are poor people, OK? They got families and everything like that. They work a job. And even when they get behind in trying to pay, they go to jail.”

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That, he believes, violates the spirit of the Supreme Court decision that bears his name.

In February, the Ohio Supreme Court issued a “bench card” to every state and municipal court judge explaining how they could avoid sending impoverished defendants to jail.

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“It marks an unprecedented move by the Ohio Supreme Court to educate and hold accountable judges who ignore the law,” the ACLU’s Mike Brickner wrote. “The card provides judges with the legal alternatives to collect payments, and the procedure they must follow to determine a person’s ability to pay their court fines.”

[“Man in jail” on Shutterstock]


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2020 Election

2016 Trump campaign vets warn he’s ‘slipping badly’ in multiple swing states

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Two men who worked on President Donald Trump's 2016 election campaign have warned the president that his position in swing states is significantly deteriorating amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Politico reports that former Trump campaign officials Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie delivered a face-to-face warning to the president that he was "slipping badly" in several key states, including must-win battlegrounds such as Florida and Arizona.

"Bossie and Lewandowski, who served as top aides on Trump’s 2016 effort, complained to the president about his political operation," the publication writes. "Trump’s campaign team, in response decided to rush their Arizona and Florida representatives onto airplanes for a Thursday meeting with the president."

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WSJ slams Trump for ‘hurting the country’ by ‘debasing’ the presidency: ‘Ugly even for him’

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President Donald Trump was slammed by the editorial board of the conservative Wall Street Journal on Tuesday evening.

“Donald Trump sometimes traffics in conspiracy theories—recall his innuendo in 2016 about Ted Cruz’s father and the JFK assassination—but his latest accusation against MSNBC host Joe Scarborough is ugly even for him,” the newspaper noted. “Mr. Trump has been tweeting the suggestion that Mr. Scarborough might have had something to do with the death in 2001 of a young woman who worked in his Florida office when Mr. Scarborough was a GOP Congressman.”

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‘We have them outnumbered’: Morning Joe explains why Trump’s ‘vile’ tweets don’t work on most people

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MSNBC's Joe Scarborough explained why most Americans could not be dragged down to President Donald Trump's level, hurling angry attacks and ignoring scientific advice.

The "Morning Joe" host said the president's refusal to wear a mask and his murder allegations against him would fall flat with most Americans, because they didn't spend all day stoking their own anger on social media.

"Most Americans don't live in the gutters of Twitter," Scarborough said. "Most Americans don't live posting hateful things about people on Facebook. They talk about their loved ones, they talk about their faith in God, they talk about their children, their grandchildren. We have them outnumbered."

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