While controversial calls to “defund the police” have grabbed headlines, we urgently need to examine how we fund the police today. The increasing use of excessive fees, fines, and surcharges to fund parts of our criminal justice system is creating punitive debt traps for millions of low-income Americans leaving prison. Many find themselves in an economic prison: prevented from paying down their debts by the debts themselves. Others are so entrapped that they are actually reincarcerated for unpaid debt. Either way, they are denied the dignity of a real second chance — and a fresh start to pursue one’s purpose and to contribute to family, community and country.
Criminal justice debt has garnered growing attention — including today in Florida, where unpaid fees and fines are being used to deny those with a past felony the ability to vote. But what has gotten inadequate attention is the increasing role these fees play in funding our courts and police departments, and how they crush the chances of millions of Black and brown Americans to make a better life for themselves and their families, through what can be seen, figuratively and literally, as new debt prisons.
The fact that 21st-century America is recreating any form of debt prison is painfully ironic from a historical perspective. The United States was, after all, the first major nation to get rid of debt prisons in the 1820s and 1830s and embrace “fresh starts” for bankrupts at a time when “debtors were imprisoned in every country in Europe except Portugal,” according to historian Jill Lepore. Alexis de Tocqueville was to later note that this willingness to not see bankrupts as forever “disgrace[d] made Americans differ, not only from the nations of Europe, but from all the commercial nations of our time.”
This movement reflected a powerful American ideal: It was wrong to permanently shackle a person’s productive potential. As the economic historian Bradley Hansen writes, many came to believe “a fresh start was not only fair but in the best interest of society,” as it promoted both individual dignity and economic growth. “Burdened with debts that they had no hope of paying,” writes Hansen, insolvent debtors “had no incentive to be productive … Freed from these debts they could once again become productive members of society.”