Jailed, for Being Poor

Debtors' prisons for misdemeanor crimes are flourishing in the U.S.

By Carla Murphy Feb 13, 2014

U.S. courts continue the practice of locking up people for being poor–in effect, criminalizing poverty. A new Human Rights Watch report estimates that private probation companies in the state of Georgia, for example, collect a minimum of $40 million in fines, annually. Clients are typically charged with misdemeanors, like Thomas Barrett, who pled guilty to shoplifting a $2 can of beer. After failing to pay the $200 criminal fine, Barrett racked up more than $1,000 in extra fees to his probation company. So he was jailed. At the time, according to the report which focuses on Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, Barrett was selling his own blood plasma twice a week to raise money. 

The ACLU first investigated debtors’ prisons in several southern states in 2010. Four years later, according to a new report, the ACLU in Washington state finds that in one county, 20 percent of its jailed population is in for unpaid fines and fees. Throughout the state, criminal debt grows into the thousands of dollars with help from a 12 percent annual interest rate.

Georgia’s private probation industry, which is largely unregulated and not subject to open records laws, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is dominated by former law enforcement officers.