Why Soak the Rich When We Can Punk the Poor?

Speaking of probation, it’s supposed to be that you don’t go to jail for being poor.

Thirty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a court couldn’t revoke your probation and imprison you for not paying a fine or restitution unless the court found, after inquiry, that you somehow could pay the fine or restitution, or even if you couldn’t, that no other alternative to imprisonment, like community service, would adequately punish or deter you. See Bearden v. Georgia, 461 U.S. 660 (1983).

But according to a yearlong NPR study, we’re not there yet. The study researched the law in all fifty states and conducted over 150 interviews with lawyers, judges, public officials, policy experts, and probationers in and out of jail. Two key findings emerged:

  1. Defendants are charged for a long list of services that were once free—including ones that are required by the Constitution.
  2. Poor people sometimes go to jail when they fall behind on their payments.

As we’ve noted before, the problem gets worse when we outsource these core public functions to private, for-profit enterprise.

Here’s how one civil-liberties lawyer put it: “It’s not that it’s wrong to charge people money as a way to punish them. But there have to be alternatives for people who can’t pay. And that alternative cannot be: incarceration if you’re poor, payment if you’re rich.”

Meanwhile, meet two Harvard-trained lawyers whose non-profit law firm works to reconcile our values and reality. In particular, they’ve sued private probation companies to stop abusive practices that fleece people for minor offenses then throw them in jail when they can’t pay the surcharges. You can find their website at www.equaljusticeunderlaw.org.

They deserve our support.

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