Thousands in St. Louis land in ‘debtor prisons’ for not paying a court fee

The Atlantic magazine has a new report out about “debtor prisons” in the St. Louis area, and it’s nothing short of alarming. The story by Whitney Benne and Blake Strode traces the problem all the way back to the pre-Civil War Dred Scott decision and includes details about how fairly routine municipal tickets – like for “saggy pants” – end up putting people in jail.
The report notes that “… as the recent deluge of reports and litigation confirms, and many have long known, thousands of people throughout the St. Louis metropolitan area are routinely sent to jail because they cannot pay local court fines and fees. These people are poor, and they tend to be black. While there are many terms to describe this—including, importantly, unconstitutional, —there is one with historical resonance reserved for such a practice: debtors’ prison.
The offer background: “… today, the ‘debts’ that lead to incarceration take the form of monetary penalties established and enforced by municipal courts. For many people throughout the St. Louis region, the nightmare of debtors’ prison is a recurring one: Each time a payment or court date is missed, the court issues another warrant, and the individual is subject to arrest, jail, and additional fines and court fees.
It is a case study in how the “gray area” of government activity, in this case charges that are serious enough to land you in jail but not “criminal” in the sense you have a right to an attorney, end up with significant jail time. Prepare your outrage meter and read the entire report: Debtors’ Prison in 21st-Century America.

Texas To Rule On Civil Fees Issue

The Texas Supreme Court is expected to hear a case this week that might clarify when local courts can force poor plaintiffs to pay fees. The Texas Tribune news website explains that”… in 2012, six plaintiffs from Tarrant County sued the local district court clerk for charging them court fees even after they filed affidavits of their indigent status — also known as ‘pauper petitions’ — when they filed for divorce. But the clerk says final divorce decrees require that each party pay its share of the court costs.” 
The Tribune report also placed the issue in some context: “… court costs and fines surfaced as one of the more pressing criminal justice issues in the aftermath of the police shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. While a grand jury cleared the officer, Darren Wilson, of criminal wrongdoing, a subsequent U.S. Department of Justice report revealed how the police department in Ferguson wrote more tickets for mostly poor African Americans than any other ethnic group. Following the shooting of Brown, federal investigators found that Ferguson relied on municipal ticketing and fines as a revenue generator for the city’s budget.”