Abolish the Debt Sentence

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Abolish the Debt Sentence

On a recent trip to Albany, New York City Mayor Eric Adams pushed for revision of the state’s bail reform law, in light of the murders of Michelle Go and Christina Yuna Lee, pressing lawmakers to give judges more discretionary power concerning pretrial detention. Mayor Adams’s political tussling over bail reform last month was not new. Since it was introduced in April 2019 by the state legislature, the reform has been fiercely debated in the context of “public safety,” but the relationship between cash bail and criminal justice debt has not been adequately included in these conversations: How does the accrual of criminal justice debt affect public safety in the long run?

Zachary Gillespie, an alumnus of NYU’s Prison Education Program who joined the program’s Debt & Incarceration Project as a student researcher in the spring of 2020, says debt and incarceration are “parallel” to each other. The criminal justice system as we know it saddles incarcerated individuals and those accused of crimes with financial obligations leading to the accrual of debt at nearly every juncture of the legal process, as a form of punishment as well as revenue. “A lot of people in prison are affected by debt in different ways,” said Gillespie. In particular, he emphasizes the fraught and stressful consequences criminal justice debt levies on individuals. “Their commissaries are docked, and what little money they can have sent in are garnished by the state, putting them at risk for food insecurity and other issues.”

For decades, the onus of generating revenue for states and municipalities with strained budgets—most famously Ferguson, Mo.—has been shifted by several states onto those accused and convicted of crimes. This is done through criminal justice fines, fees, and debt, sometimes called “legal financial obligations” or “monetary sanctions”: all the court costs, restitution debts, and bail forfeitures levied on individuals who have been accused or convicted of crimes.

Neil L. Sobol, a Texas A&M University law professor whose research involves debt collection in civil and criminal justice matters, has written that the current criminal justice system produces modern-day debtors’ prisons. “The traditional debtors’ prisons of the 18th and 19th century incarcerated individuals unable to pay civil obligations to creditors,” says Sobol. Fees were unregulated and were assessed for a range of charges to be imposed on the incarcerated to cover the cost of admission, room, board, food, medical care, and release—a practice still common across the United States.

Today, exorbitant fees are often imposed because private entities’ charges are insufficiently or not at all regulated. This compounds social and racial inequalities by creating a two-tiered system of justice, says Sobol, that imposes fines on a population unable to pay them without significant financial strain, as well as the threat of incarceration for nonpayment. This set-up is sometimes called the “debt-to-prison pipeline.”

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