The Return of Debtors' Prisons in Louisiana

Article excerpt

Byline: Joel Schectman

Inmate isn't a money-making profession, which helps explain why states outlawed debtors' prisons in the 1830s. More recently, the Supreme Court added protections for the destitute, ruling that a judge can't revoke probation for or heap prison time on an inmate merely because he can't afford fines or court fees. But while poverty is no longer a crime, at least not officially, two new studies suggest that the practice of locking up debtors is becoming more common. In separate efforts, the American Civil Liberties Union and Brennan Center for Justice at New York University spent a year observing court cases and interviewing hundreds of defenders, prosecutors, and the accused. The results, copies of which were released early to NEWSWEEK, show a troubling pattern of incarceration in at least 16 states, where even minor, nonviolent offenses such as speeding and loitering result in prison time for the poor.

The reason, according to the reports, is that courts indiscriminately slap fines on impoverished defendants, triggering an endless cycle of legal jeopardy. Failure to pay a ticket, for example, results in an arrest warrant, and a second failure to pay can lead to prison. The crime is coded as "contempt" for court or "failure to appear," making it hard to determine the total number of poverty-related sentences. But during the summer of 2009 in New Orleans Municipal Court, which the ACLU says is particularly hard-nosed, the group saw 33 cases of indigent defendants who had missed earlier court dates. …