The British writer Charles Dickens has given the world of literature some of its most famous stories and characters. “A Christmas Carol,” “Oliver Twist,” “Great Expectations” and “David Copperfield” are but a few in the long list of notable works Dickens penned. The characters Ebenezer Scrooge, Tiny Tim, Miss Havisham and Uriah Heep are a handful of the indelible figures Dickens etched upon the collective psyche of many through the telling of stories that resonate as profoundly today as they did over a century and a half ago.
Great stories, like great people, are timeless.
What made Dickens’ so real and believable is that much of his writing came from his own life experience. One of eight kids, Dickens would early on experience the blistering pain and unsettledness that life can sometimes bring.
When Dickens was around age 12, his dad was sent to what was known as “debtors prison.” His father owed a debt, couldn’t repay it and so had to go to jail. Dickens’ mother, along with the two youngest kids, also moved into the jail. Dickens and his oldest sister had to go it alone. Such was life in 19th century Britain.
Dickens was sent to work in a factory to help pay off his father’s debts. The sensitive, 12 year-old-boy had to live in a boarding house alone and work in a factory while almost his entire family lived in a prison.
Dickens learned some bitter lessons very early in life. The most profound lesson? Poverty was perilous. He saw firsthand that the most burdensome, frightening and ever-present penalty that stalked the lives of the poor was prison. The risk that a lack of money could lead to a lack of freedom was a lesson Dickens never forgot, and his treasured writings serve as proof.
Debtors prisons used to be common. Poor people who didn’t have the means to pay off a court-ordered judgment would be placed in prison (oftentimes locked workhouses) until their debt was paid off or they could get someone to pay it off for them. Reform, however, eventually brought about an end to this practice.
In the United States, an 1833 federal law forbade debtors prisons. And in 1983 the U.S. Supreme Court in Bearden v. Georgia ruled that putting people in jail who were too poor to pay their debts, fines or fees was a violation of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause if no indigency (ability to pay) hearing was held. Today, in not just the U.S., but throughout much of the developed world, debtors prisons are illegal. Theoretically.
Here in the U.S., while not using the same name but imposing the same strictures, the criminal justice system in many states and localities operate as de facto debtors prisons. In a 2010 study titled “Drawing Blood from Stones: Legal Debt and Social Inequality in the United States,” a group of University of Washington researchers found that around 10 million Americans had more than $50 billion in outstanding fines and fees that placed many on a treadmill of perpetual indebtedness to the state and time behind bars.
Fees and fines from municipalities and states hang like millstones around the necks of the poor. Horribly, many poor people are purposefully preyed upon as state and local governments use this pay scheme as a main source of government revenue.
During the past several years a concerted bipartisan effort has been underway to address this egregious practice. In July 2016, I wrote a column titled “Quiet reform in Mobile’s criminal justice system.” In it I looked at how Mobile, without any outside pressure or agitation, set about reforming the management and practices of its jail and court system, as well as its bail and bond practices.
The Not Penalizing Poverty initiative, spearheaded by Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s office and implemented by Municipal Court Administrator Nathan Emmorey and Metro Jail Warden Trey Oliver, is targeted toward nonviolent, low-level offenders. In that column I quoted Oliver, who stated, “It allows certain defendants … to keep their jobs and repay their debt to society not by cash, but rather by physical labor and time spent improving the community.” The Not Penalizing Poverty program is not community service, because those who are allowed into it are under the custody and control of jail officials, which means they are serving their sentence.
Emmorey also opined in the column, “We hear about the very real problem of over-incarceration in our country; this is a way to serve a jail sentence without spending nights in jail away from families and taking fathers and mothers away from children.”
Additionally, I noted, “The underlying thrusts of these programs is that too often society has heavily penalized such offenders, not because their actions or crimes were severe, but simply because they lacked the resources to obtain their freedom.”
Mobile’s efforts highlight the seriousness those on both the political right and left have brought to bear on an issue that strikes at the core of who we are as Americans and what we believe about real justice, fairness and equal treatment.
However, last month one very important voice struck a different chord on this issue. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded a Justice Department letter that warned municipalities and state courts about the dreaded and unlawful practice of forcing poor defendants to either pay their fines or be locked up.
Much has been made of Sessions’ recent actions on state marijuana laws, but of even greater importance is the message he’s sending concerning criminal justice reform. In a time when it’s been well-documented that debtors prisons have made a comeback, it’s very important that the nation’s top law enforcement officer send a clear message that no American will be penalized because of their poverty … that fines and fees will not be a de facto means of constantly incarcerating the poor — and filling government coffers.
Two things justice shouldn’t be is biased and heartless. That message has now become muddled.