Column, 312 words

Making Poverty a Crime

Jailing indigents for debts costs the courts way more than the fines they owe and violates the Constitution.

Jim Hightower

Ebenezer Scrooge, the Dickens character, perfectly personified the nasty rich. For example, when asked to make a charitable donation for people trapped in poverty, Scrooge curled his lip in contempt and snarled: “Are there no prisons?”

Blessedly, our American society has progressed well past such heartless disdain. Unless, of course, you happen to be poor in Ohio. Or Georgia. Or in the nationwide utopia envisioned by Newt Gingrich.

Ohio’s Civil Liberties Union recently issued a report documenting the Scroogian return of debtors’ prisons after finding that municipal courts in that state are jailing poor people unable to pay court fines. Last summer, a suburban Cleveland court threw 45 people in jail because they couldn’t come up with the money for fines they were assessed, and the Sandusky Municipal Court imprisoned 75 down-and-outers for the same “crime.”

Besides the fact that jailing indigents for debts cost the courts way more than the fines they owe, it also violates the U.S. and Ohio constitutions.

hightower-prisons-Leo Reynolds

Leo Reynolds/Flickr

But what the hey — on to Georgia, which has enhanced the debtor prison experience by privatizing it.

Say you roll through a stop sign. Uniquely, the Peach Tree State counts that as a criminal offense.

Now, say you can’t pony up the full fine. Suddenly, you’re in the clutches of a for-profit, private probation corporation. It charges probationers a $15 “start-up” fee, a $25 photo fee, and a myriad of other fees — on top of the fine they owe. Fail to pay, go to jail.

Where did this rip-off system come from? A private probation outfit bribed the head of Georgia’s Board of Pardons to get it passed.

And don’t forget Newt! During his failed campaign for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination, the former House Speaker said America needs to bring back workhouses for welfare children. Neat, huh? Let’s criminalize poverty. That’ll teach ’em.

OtherWords columnist Jim Hightower is a radio commentator, writer, and public speaker. He’s also editor of the populist newsletter, The Hightower Lowdown.

  • thomas jefferson

    america,has lost the hand of the lords protection,NOW america will desend into total depravity,mass death ,corruption,and every kind of sickness you can imagine,and the whole population wants it,and supports any and every kind of preversion by government,THE LORD SAID,america is rotten to the core,from top to bottom,get as close as you can to the LORD NOW,america is ENDING,as rotten can’t be fixed……………………………

  • thomas jefferson

    DOES anyone have the presence of mind to understand why the LORD would say,IF YOU HARM,ANY OF MY LITTLE ONES,YOU WOULD RATHER HAVE A MILLSTONE TIED A ROUND YOUR NECK AND BE CAST INTO THE SEA,meaning, you can expect to be destroyed for it,and not an easy destruction either,a LONG drawn out death,this is what you have brough upond yourself causing harm on children,the LORD will lift them up to heaven,BUT NONE OF YOU, WILL BE THAT LUCKY,I guarantee it………………………………