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Debtors’ Prison

Passionate Montgomery Attorney Defends Victims of Debtors’ Prison

Determined representation for poor Alabamans jailed for unpaid fines

It is not a crime to be poor, yet courts throughout Alabama have routinely sentenced poor defendants to jail time when they have been unable to pay onerous fines and court fees. This creation of a de facto debtors’ prison runs contrary to American principles of justice and has come under heavy criticism from citizens’ groups and higher courts. As a law firm committed to civil rights for all Americans, McGuire & Associates assists individuals facing jail time because they are unable to pay fines and court fees.  We provide passionate representation to preserve the liberty and uphold the dignity of poor Alabamans.

A brief history of debtors’ prison in the United States

Historically, the term “debtors’ prison” refers to a western European practice of jailing people who were unable to pay public or private debts. The debtors were sentenced to workhouses until they repaid what they owed through very low-paid labor or their family liberated them by paying off the debt. Naturally, the inmates of debtors’ prisons tended to be poor people who languished in crowded cells where disease was rampant. The inhumanity of this practice spurred reformers to fight for the eradication of debtors’ prison. One such reformer was James Oglethorpe, an Englishman whose dream for founding the colony of Georgia was to liberate poor prisoners and give them a fresh start. Unfortunately, not only did Oglethorpe’s plan founder, but many colonies set up debtors’ prison on the British model, and these practices continued even after the American colonies won their independence.

Today, the United States does not have debtors’ prison for private debts, but jail time is permitted for unpaid criminal fines and criminal court costs. Courts can also jail “deadbeat parents” for contempt of court if they have not paid mandated child support.

However, courts have found the Fourteenth Amendment protects defendants from incarceration for unpaid debt under various circumstances:

  • A court cannot extend the maximum jail sentence for a crime because the defendant is unable to pay the accompanying fine.
  • A court cannot impose a fine as sentence for a crime and then automatically convert the sentence to jail time if the defendant is unable to pay the amount in full.
  • A court also may not revoke parole due to an unpaid fine without first inquiring whether the defendant has the ability to pay.

In recent years, courts in Alabama have come under criticism for practices that resemble a return to debtors’ prison in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The current problem of debtors’ prisons in Alabama

In recent years, Alabamans have been victims of schemes throughout the state to extort payment of criminal fines and court fees from poor defendants under threat of jail. Courts have routinely ignored the requirement in the law to examine whether the failure to pay a fine or court fee was “willful,” of if the defendant simply did not have the resources to pay. Fortunately, there is momentum in the other direction:

  • Cities across Alabama had been using private probation companies to collect criminal fines and gave those companies the power to incarcerate individuals for nonpayment without a trial. Fortunately, the Alabama Judicial Inquiry Commission (JIC) has put an end to this practice.
  • In 2016, the JIC censured Circuit Court Judge Marvin Wiggins for repeatedly presenting indigent defendants with the ultimatum to pay court fees, donate blood or go to jail.
  • In 2017, the JIC suspended Armstead Lester Hayes III, presiding judge of Montgomery’s municipal court, for 11 months and forced him to pay $4,312 in court costs, because Judge Hayes had violated canons of judicial ethics by jailing poor people who couldn’t afford to pay fines.
  • In 2017, a U.S. District Court judge ordered the court in Randolph County to free a woman held in jail because she could not afford to post unaffordable bail.

McGuire & Associates is committed to ending the scourge of debtors’ prison in Montgomery and throughout Alabama. Our civil rights division is prepared to advocate aggressively for victims of this inhumane and unconstitutional practice.

Contact our Montgomery civil rights law firm for defense from debtors’ prison

McGuire & Associates protects the constitutional rights of residents in Montgomery and throughout Alabama. To schedule a free consultation with a passionate civil rights lawyer, call us at 334-651-8891 or contact our Montgomery office online. Our office is located at 31 Clayton Street, convenient to I-85 and I-65.

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