Supreme Court Ruling Not Enough To Prevent Debtors Prisons In 1983, the high court ruled judges can't jail people because they're too poor to pay their fines and fees. But an NPR investigation found judges still use jail time as punishment for nonpayment.
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Supreme Court Ruling Not Enough To Prevent Debtors Prisons

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Supreme Court Ruling Not Enough To Prevent Debtors Prisons

Supreme Court Ruling Not Enough To Prevent Debtors Prisons

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's return to our story about what some are calling modern day debtor's prison. Yesterday, we told you how people around the country are sitting in jail because they can't pay court fines and fees, even though the Supreme Court outlawed that practice three decades ago. Today, NPR's Joseph Shapiro continues our series, Guilty And Charged, with a visit to Michigan.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: This is the story of a young man who caught a fish out of season. He says he couldn't pay the fine so he went to jail. I found Kyle Dewitt here.

KYLE DEWITT: This is where I like to come when I got a lot of things on my mind.

SHAPIRO: On a quiet stretch of the Grand River in Ionia, Michigan, catching fish.

DEWITT: Catfish, bass, rock bass, salmon, trout, bluegill, pike, walleye.

SHAPIRO: It was a bass that got Dewitt into trouble. He thought he'd caught a rock bass, which was in season, but the Department of Natural Resources agent said it was a smallmouth bass, which was out of season. Dewitt got a ticket. The fine, plus fees, added up to $155. Dewitt was 19. He was the father of a baby boy. He dropped out of high school. He was unemployed.

He says he tried to find the money to pay. He knocked on neighbors' doors, offering to mow lawns or do chores, but he didn't come up with the $155.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Dewitt. This is C607947M. State of Michigan versus Kyle Dewitt. Are you Mr. Dewitt?

DEWITT: Yes, sir.

SHAPIRO: Which is how he wound up in Ionia County District Court in August of 2011 in front of a judge.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: If you pay it all, there's no need to put you in jail. Otherwise, we're kind of at that point. You saw what I've done with the other fellow. I'd just as soon get paid. It costs taxpayers money to put you in jail, but if that's how it ends up, that's how it ends up.

SHAPIRO: There'd been confusion. Court officials said paperwork was mailed to Dewitt with instructions for paying off the fine in installments. But Dewitt, who as a teen moved from house to house, from his grandparents to his mother's to friends' houses, said he never got the letter. Now, two months after he caught that fish out of season, the fine had grown to more than $200.

DEWITT: I have a quick question for you guys.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah?

DEWITT: I can bring 100 and pay on it tomorrow. I can bring 100 in once you guys open up, if that would be fine.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Well, it needs to be paid all or you need to do jail instead. Do you have a credit card?

DEWITT: No, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You don't have any friends?

DEWITT: No, sir. My family don't even help me.

SHAPIRO: The judge in Ionia, Michigan, District Court Judge Raymond Voet, said he needs to make sure there's respect for the law, even on a minor violation.

RAYMOND VOET: If I got someone standing in front of me for something that's labeled a misdemeanor and they've failed to follow through with court orders on that, am I supposed to tell the rest of the world, the rest of the law abiding citizens that they're chumps and fools for having respected the law and respected the court's orders? I'm not going to do that. I'm not going to make fools or chumps out of people who follow the law and comply with court orders.

SHAPIRO: The judge has a reputation for holding everyone to the same rules. Last year, Voet's own cell phone went off in the middle of an attorney's closing argument. The judge held himself in contempt and fined himself $25, saying those were the rules. Still, others say the rules on fines and fees are unfair because they mostly hurt the poor.

MIRIAM AUKERMAN: Every day poor people go to jail because they're poor.

SHAPIRO: Miriam Aukerman, an attorney with the ACLU of Michigan, took up Kyle Dewitt's case.

AUKERMAN: We live in a society in which debtors prisons, and those were supposed to have ended in the 18th century, debtors prisons are alive and well in Michigan and across the country. People go to jail because they're poor. And that's a two-tiered and unequal system of justice.

SHAPIRO: NPR looked at laws in every state and found more and more fees being imposed on defendants who come through the court system. The fees are used to fund the courts or other state programs. A person can owe hundreds or even thousands of dollars. People with money pay them off, but when poor people struggle to pay, there are late fees and more fees.

We found hundreds of cases in Michigan and other states where people like Kyle Dewitt even go to jail. Not for the original minor offense, but for not paying those fees that keep piling up. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled defendants can be sent to jail but only if they willfully refuse to pay a fine they could afford. Ron Schafer, who prosecuted Dewitt, says judges will put defendants on payment plans they can afford.

Trouble comes if they don't pay.

RON SCHAFER: Are these folks really too poor to pay or is it a matter of priorities? Are they unable to work and therefore unable to pay or simply don't want to work?

KIM NASH: My babies, I miss you so much. Mommy couldn't wait to see you. I had to wake you up. I love you, baby.

SHAPIRO: It's just after sunrise and Kim Nash has come home after 11 days in jail. Only Nash, who's 23, didn't want her daughters, who are two and three, to know she was in jail. She told them she was at the doctor's. But it's hard to keep secrets from kids, and her three-year-old is smiling a mischievous smile.

NASH: What, baby?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Zoe is saying you were in jail.

NASH: (Unintelligible) that I was at jail?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Yeah.

NASH: Oh.

SHAPIRO: When Kim Nash got stopped for driving without a license in Ionia, Michigan, she ended up owing nearly $1,400 in fines and fees. When the judge offered to put her on a payment plan of $25 to $40 a month, she agreed. But she never made any payments. Nash says that's because she was diagnosed with a serious illness. She left a job making auto parts. She says she couldn't work all day. She was in pain and she kept needing to take off for doctor's appointments.

The prosecutor says she never contacted the court to explain. Nash was already barely getting by. She's got a cell phone, but she can't afford phone service so she uses the phone just as a camera. When Nash was called back to court in July, she agreed to go to jail because that would erase her $1,400 in fines and fees.

NASH: Mommy was in jail, honey. You know, don't you, baby?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Yeah.

NASH: Mommy won't ever go to jail again, though. I promise you. I only went to jail because I couldn't pay money. I didn't have money to pay and that's why I went to jail. So now all my money's paid up and I don't have to ever stay in jail again. Is that cool?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Yeah.

NASH: You want mom to go back to jail?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: No.

NASH: No. I missed you when I was there, though. Mommy thought about you every day.

SHAPIRO: Kim Nash may be done with the criminal justice system, but not Kyle Dewitt, who caught that fish out of season. About a year after he got out of jail, a letter arrived in the mail. It was a bill for room and board for each day he was in jail. It seemed like a lot of money to him.

DEWITT: I'd rather eat at Red Lobster for the $85 than what they made me eat in there.

SHAPIRO: NPR's survey of fees found that at least 41 states allow jails and prisons to charge room and board. It was another fee Dewitt says he couldn't afford and it was turned over to a collection agency. To Dewitt, the whole thing makes no sense.

DEWITT: It was ridiculous 'cause it was over a fish.

SHAPIRO: Some judges and politicians are starting to raise questions. The Ohio Supreme Court in February told judges to stop sending people to jail for not paying court costs, and Colorado just this month made it law to stop jailing people too poor to pay their fines and fees. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And you can see all of the key findings of our series, Guilty and Charged, at NPR.org.

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