Debt Collectors Trying to Squeeze Blood from a Turnip
In the mid-19th century, there was a common way to deal with people who has unpaid debts. They were locked up in warehouses until they pay their debts either by labor or by outsourcing funds from someone outside the warehouse. This is what they call debtor’s prison and this commonly happens to indigent people who do not have enough resources to pay off debts. Back then, this practice was stopped mainly because it’s not humane. But apparently this primitive practice is still being done up to this day.
Tim Fugatt from Alaska was pulled over by a police officer one night on his way home and got ticketed for an expired licensed tag. His wife was in the same scenario and got ticketed twice. After they explained their situation before the court, they were found not guilty but they were still required to pay court costs. This court fees became their debt and was transferred over to a private collection company that collects fines for the city.
After falling short on their payments, they were threatened that they could be jailed if they didn’t pay what they owed. But the nightmare did not stop there, when they missed one court date, they were arrested and jailed. From a mere $500 court fee, they ended up with a debt of $2,500 more for penalties and additional fees, all this for a violation they were “found not guilty”.
A growing number of states have been getting the services of private probation companies. These are outsourced companies tasked to collect fees on behalf of the government because of lack of manpower. Some cities find this advantageous since they don’t have to run after people with debts.
Private probation companies collect these fines at no cost to the cities they work for, what they do is they charge the offenders instead and part of the strategy to efficiently collect is to threaten to put them in jail. It is however unfortunate that despite information on the threats that people are getting from these private companies, the government seems to keep mum about it.
True enough, thousands of individuals go into jail because they cannot afford to pay a fine. Just like the Fugatts, they struggled to pay for the debt they owed despite the fact that they were both jobless and they had a dying son, but the system looked past all this and chose to put them in jail anyway.
There’s no consideration, no inquiry, and no choice but to pay up no matter what kind of circumstances they may have. The hard truth is, these private probation companies take advantage of the peoples’ situations to earn money.
Back in 1971, a ruling from the Supreme Court says that it is illegal to put poor people in jail for the reason that they cannot pay a fine in full. Moreover, an inquiry should be made first to determine if the person is capable of paying a fine before putting them to jail. Otherwise, the court is required to provide the individual an alternate way or means to pay their debt to society in forms such as community service.
If an alternative process or option is given, there should be less poor people who has to go to jail for the simple reason that they are just too poor to pay a fine. An experience that does not uplift nor help to make the situation any easier.
Nowadays, more and more individuals who are victims of debtor’s prison are learning to fight back. There are also non-profit organizations that look into these cases to see if proper process has been given to these individuals before threatening to put them in jail.
A number of cities have also responded positively by looking into better regulations to collect fines without putting people to jail. A standing order in some areas are placed while reiterating that no impoverished individual should go to jail for the reason that they cannot settle a fine. In Fugatt’s area, a lot of people ceased receiving warrants of arrest and have been taken out of private probation companies’ roster.
The city of Montgomery, one of the cities that hired a private probation company has also agreed to new policies that avoids putting poor people to jail for not being able to settle a fine and later on was required to stop contracting private probation services after a number of citizens who claimed that they were illegally put to jail won a lawsuit against the city.
If you find yourself a victim of this horrible practice, help is available. Don’t be afraid to fight back for what is lawfully right. Email or call us at 866-4-WAY-OUT for a free consultation.