Ray Charles Staten Sr. should have celebrated his 60th birthday this month. Instead, his family marked the fourth anniversary of his death. It all started, according to a lawsuit that settled in March 2015, when a small debt became a death sentence in the spring of 2011.
Unable to pay an outstanding debt of $409 in court fines, Mr Staten was arrested and sentenced to 16 days in Mississippi’s Harrison County Jail. Shortly after being booked at the jail, Mr Staten fell seriously ill. Despite his obvious symptoms and his cellmates’ cries for help, the jail’s privately-contracted medical staff allowed his condition to worsen until – on the fifth day of his sentence – he collapsed in his cell and, upon being transported to a medical center, could not be revived. He had suffered acute peritonitis, a life-threatening infection of the abdominal lining for which early treatment is essential.
Whenever the government locks someone in jail, it has a constitutional duty to provide adequate medical care, a responsibility that can’t be evaded simply by contracting it out to a for-profit company. Unfortunately, Mr Staten’s is a familiar story: the ACLU is currently litigating a case in a Mississippi prison that challenges, in part, the dangerously inadequate health care provided by Health Assurance, a private corporation also responsible for Mr Staten’s medical treatment — or lack thereof.
Mr Staten’s experience is far from unusual. Every day, indigent Americans are ripped from their homes and their communities and forced into jails of varying degrees of dysfunction and decay. The US supreme court ruled three decades ago that it is unconstitutional to imprison people because they cannot afford to pay debts. The ruling, however, hasn’t ended the practice of jailing people for unpaid government fees and fines.
In 2010, the ACLU found that courts across the nation regularly deny Americans proper consideration of their financial position and throw them into jail over fines they could never hope to pay. As a result, local jails nationwide have transformed into modern-day “debtors’ prisons” overcrowded with indigent people whose only punishable offense is being poor. The effects are devastating.
This growing phenomenon funnels poor Americans into the criminal justice system with sentences that disrupt their lives, too often trapping them in a damning cycle of poverty and incarceration that far outlasts their initial conviction. These practices have a disparate impact on communities of color in the United States.
Consider 19-year-old Kevin Thompson, a black teenager in DeKalb County, Georgia, who was jailed simply because he was unable to pay $838 in fines and fees associated with a routine traffic citation. Though only half of DeKalb County’s residents are black, nearly all probationers jailed for failure to pay by itsrecorders court, which handles minor offenses like traffic misdemeanors, are black. The ACLU filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of Mr Thompson and reached a settlement with the county that included a number of new reform measures aimed at preventing others from facing the same unconstitutional treatment.
Jail sentences like those imposed on Mr Thompson and Mr Staten aren’t just unjust – they’re also costly. The ACLU’s 2010 report In for a Penny found that individuals incarcerated for failure to pay often cost the state more than they owe. The report identifies one individual whose incarceration in New Orleans cost more than six times his $498 debt. So why are we stuck with this senseless system?
Local courts and municipalities – reliant on fines and fees as a source of revenue – are adopting increasingly aggressive collection practices. This was the case in DeKalb County, where county policymakers enlisted a for-profit company for the specific purpose of targeting those too poor to pay fines on sentencing day. And areport released in March by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division foundthat municipal courts in Ferguson, Missouri, prioritized revenue above fair administration of justice and imposed undue burdens on residents living in or near poverty, perpetuating and exacerbating racial and economic inequality in the community.