DoJ Deals Massive Blow to Debtors’ Prisons, Poor People Can’t be Held When They Can’t Afford Bail

From Justin Gardner:

Last Thursday, the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) made the shocking statement that it will no longer use private prisons to incarcerate federal prisoners, saying they are less safe and less effective than government-run facilities.

This was welcome news for those who realize that for-profit prisons contribute to the problem of mass incarceration, but the feds still need to address the glaring issue of jailing people for victimless crimes such as drug use.  

The effects on the prison-industrial complex were immediate, as stock values crashed for the Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group. Now, another DoJ ruling has the for-profit prison system reeling.

For the first time, the DoJ said in a federal appeals court that defendants cannot be held in jail solely because they can’t afford to pay bail.

“Bail practices that incarcerate indigent individuals before trial solely because of their inability to pay for their release violate the Fourteenth Amendment,” the agency said in an amicus brief. Not accounting for indigence results in “the unnecessary incarceration of numerous individuals who are presumed innocent.”

The move could strike a serious blow to the practice of debtors’ prisons, where local court systems prey on the populace by arresting and jailing poor people for failing to pay legal debts they can’t afford. This causes a vicious cycle of mounting debts from which people cannot escape.

Municipal courts establish contracts with private probation companies that harass indigent defendants for fines and fees. The practice of money bail has risen dramatically since 1990, part of a general trend of privatizing and profiting from every facet of the jail system.

In fact, the DoJ issued guidelines back in March that detailed several of these practices in the “criminalization of poverty.” They said municipal courts:

“Must not jail a person for nonpayment …

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