"Edwina Nowlin, a poor Michigan resident, was ordered to reimburse a juvenile detention center $104 a month for holding her 16-year-old son," the New York Times wrote in an editorial.
"When she explained to the court that she could not afford to pay, Ms. Nowlin was sent to prison. The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, which helped get her out last week after she spent 28 days behind bars, says it is seeing more people being sent to jail because they cannot make various court-ordered payments. That is both barbaric and unconstitutional."
The details of Nowlin's case are even more alarming than the Times editorial suggests. Not only was Nowlin under orders to pay a fine stemming from someone else's actions, but she had been laid off from work and lost her home at the time she was ordered to "reimburse" the county for her son's detention.
It gets worse. For-profit prisons in the US are charging people for their incarceration, as well as charging "supervision fees" for probation.
In 2006, the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) filed a suit on behalf of Ora Lee Hurley, who couldn't get out of prison until she had enough money to pay a $705 fine. But she couldn't pay the fine because she had to pay the Georgia Department of Corrections $600 a month for room and board, and spend $76 a month on public transportation, laundry and food.
She was released five days a week to work at the K&K Soul Food restaurant, where she earned $6.50 an hour, which netted her about $700 a month after taxes. Hurley was trapped in prison for eight months beyond her initial 120-day sentence until the Southern Center intervened. Over the course of her incarceration, she earned about $7,000, but she never had enough at one time to pay off her $705 fine.
"This is a situation where if this woman was able to write a check for the amount of the fine, she would be out of there," Sarah Geraghty, a SCHR lawyer, told the Atlanta Journal Constitution while Hurley was still imprisoned. "And because she can't, she's still in custody. It's as simple as that."
Georgia also lets for-profit probation companies prey on people too poor to pay their traffic violations and court fees. According to a 2008 SCHR report entitled "Profiting from the poor":
In courts around Georgia, people who are charged with misdemeanors and cannot pay their fines that day in court are placed on probation under the supervision of private, for-profit companies until they pay off their fines. On probation, they must pay these companies substantial monthly "supervision fees" that may double or triple the amount that a person of means would pay for the same offense.
For example, a person of means may pay $200 for a traffic ticket on the day of court and be done with it, while a person too poor to pay that day is placed on probation and ends up paying $500 or more for the same offense.