From the Dark Ages: Ingenious Cities Concoct Debtor's Prisons So They Can Balance Their Budgets on the Backs of the Poor

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Qumotria  Kennedy, ACLU photo

In the name of this country's time-honored tradition of punishing, exploiting and otherwise flipping off the poor, cash-strapped cities are increasingly embracing pay-or-stay, in-for-a-penny incarceration whereby they lock up people who can't afford to pay fines, fees or court costs for petty offenses like speeding tickets, and then pocket the rewards that are modest for them, but often ruinous for the "offenders." The inventive strategy of creating modern-day debtor's prisons, declared illegal in this country three decades ago, has been facilitated by private prisons, probation companies and debt collectors who have no problem with raking in profits from aggressively chasing down and locking up people so broke they can't afford to both pay their fines and feed their kids. Calling grievous foul on the practice, the ACLU filed a class action lawsuit Wednesday against the city of Biloxi, Mississippi, its police department, the municipal court system and a private probation company, charging the city “routinely arrests and jails impoverished people in a scheme to generate municipal revenue through the collection of unpaid fines, fees and court costs."

The lawsuit, the most recent of several previously filed by the ACLU and Southern Poverty Law Center in Louisiana, Alabama and Washington state, names as its lead plaintiff Qumotria Kennedy, a 36-year-old single black mother of teenage kids who was earning $9,000 a year cleaning a baseball stadium - until she lost her job while in jail. She was hauled in for failing to pay $400 in court fines, one of hundreds of poor people preyed upon - incarcerated, traumatized and sometimes killed - for trifling offenses in a system not of their own making. An idea: Howz about we jail the corporate kingpins who actually commit the crimes that gave rise to that system? Howard Zinn often cited the history of prisons as "an extreme reflection (of) the stark life differences between rich and poor, and (how ) somehow the jails end up full of poor black people...The rich did not have to commit crimes to get what they wanted - the laws were on their side."


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