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Debtor’s Prisons Still Exist in the U.S.?!

In our system, I think it’s better to be an affluent person suspected of trying to blow up a police station than it is to be a poor person who’s suspected of much, much less than this.

Those are the words of Salil Dudani, a John Gardner Public Service fellow, who has worked on civil rights cases challenging debtors’ prisons and money bail, and shared his experiences in a depressing, yet inspirational, TED Talk. (video at end of post)

Salil asks the audience what would happen if they got a parking ticket and they couldn’t afford the amount on the ticket and their family doesn’t have the money either, what happens then?

Well, one thing that’s not supposed to happen under the law is, you’re not supposed to be arrested and jailed simply because you can’t afford to pay. That’s illegal under federal law. But that’s what local governments across the country are doing to people who are poor. And so many of our lawsuits at Equal Justice Under Law target these modern-day debtors’ prisons.”

Salil tells the story of a man he met who had been arrested nine years ago for panhandling in a Walgreens, but couldn’t afford his fines and his court fees from that case. Because of an injury he had suffered when he was younger that left him with damage to his brain and several parts of his body, he was unable to work and relied on social security payments to survive.  In the last nine years, he’s been arrested 13 times, and jailed for a total of 130 days on that panhandling case. One of those stretches lasted 45 days.

How does that type of treatment benefit anyone?

Salil tells another story, this one about a single mother of three, making seven dollars an hour, relying on food stamps to feed herself and her children. About a decade ago, she got a couple of traffic tickets and a minor theft charge,and she can’t afford her fines and fees on those cases. Since then, she’s been jailed about 10 times on those cases, but she has schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and she needs medication every day. She doesn’t have access to those medications in jail, and as a result spent two weeks in a cage, hallucinating people and shadows and hearing voices, begging for the medication that would make it all stop, only to be ignored.

Again, how is that type of punishment helping this young woman? Talk about man’s inhumanity to man.

Salil argues that in our system, whether you’re detained or set free pending trial is not a matter of how dangerous you are or how much of a flight risk you pose, but whether you can afford to post your bail amount. Right now, there are 500,000 people who are in jail only because they can’t afford their bail amount. Three out of every five people in jail right now are there pretrial. They haven’t been convicted of any crime; they haven’t pled guilty to any offense.

“Many of these people who are in jail only because they can’t post bail are facing allegations so minor that the amount of time it would take for them to sit waiting for trial is longer than the sentence they would receive if convicted, which means they’re guaranteed to get out faster if they just plead guilty. So now the choice is: Should I stay here in this horrible place, away from my family and my dependents, almost guaranteed to lose my job, and then fight the charges? Or should I just plead guilty to whatever the prosecutor wants and get out? And at this point, they’re pretrial detainees, not criminals. But once they take that plea deal, we’ll call them criminals, even though an affluent person would never have been in this situation, because an affluent person would have simply been bailed out.”

The system is obviously stacked against the poor and the disenfranchised, and another sign of the unfair outcomes associated with the Ovarian Lottery.

We can do better than this.

Here’s Salil’s 12-minute TED talk.

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Jim Borden

Accounting Prof. at Villanova; happily married for 30+ years; father of 3 outstanding young men; vegan; interests: fitness, creativity, education, blogging, social media.

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