Study finds the ACI remains a debtors’ prison

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By ARIEL WERNER  |  April 23, 2008

Every day, an average of 18 people are incarcerated at the Adult Correctional Institutions (ACI) due to their inability to pay court fines, according to a new report issued by the Rhode Island Family Life Center (FLC), a Providence-based nonprofit that provides reentry planning for and policy advocacy on behalf of ex-offenders. 

Prior to the 19th century, debtor’s prisons — facilities for the incarceration of those unable to pay debts — were common in both the United Kingdom and United States. The UK abolished imprison-ment for debt with the Debtors Act of 1869, and the US eliminated the practice of imprisoning debtors at the federal level in 1833. Though many states followed suit, it remains possible for state govern-ments to incarcerate for debts relating to fraud, child-support, and alimony, fines levied as part of a sentence, restitution, and court costs. 

The US Supreme Court, in Bearden v. Georgia (1983), Tate v. Short (1971), and Payne v. Mississippi (1984), has ruled that individuals cannot be summarily jailed for debts when unable to pay and mandates the consideration of alternative measures before incarceration for debt.

Yet the FLC report, “Court Debt and Related Incarceration in Rhode Island from 2005 through 2007,” explains how our criminal justice system has propagated the practice of incarcerating debtors and the effect of this practice on the state’s already overcrowded prison.

The report analyzes data from the Judiciary and from state Department of Corrections, as well as interviews with 25 individuals at the ACI’s Intake Service Center. It concludes that court debt comprises 18 percent of prison commitments in Rhode Island. It also finds that, for 13-to-15 percent of these cases, incarcerating these debtors costs the state more than the amount they owe. The state loses $500,000 annually incarcerating debtors.

The FLC proposes five reforms to decrease incarceration for court debt in Rhode Island:

1) Reduce the maximum amount of time people are held in jail awaiting ability to pay hearings, to 48 hours;

2) Take ability to pay into account when assessing court fines and costs initially and throughout the payment plans;

3) Employ a variety of collection methods before resorting to incarceration;

4) Accept smaller bails from individuals picked up on warrants;

5) Reduce the warrant fee for people brought in on warrants for failure to appear.

State Senator Harold M. Metts (D-Providence) is sponsoring a bill that would offer judicial guidelines for the release of prisoners unable to pay court fines and limit the length of time for which a person can be imprisoned for court costs.

His bill would excuse those receiving disability payments, public assistance, and food stamps from court fine-related imprisonment, and direct courts to assess people’s ability to pay before jailing them.

Although Metts’s bill was among a package of criminal justice reform measures that failed to become law last year, the Family Life Center and its policy staff are hopeful that it will succeed during this legislative session, offering relief to the few thousand individuals incarcerated in Rhode Island each year for their inability to pay debts.

Related: Wave of reform, Fighting the good fight, Lawmakers to probe prison, More more >
  Topics: This Just In , U.S. Government, U.S. State Government, Culture and Lifestyle,  More more >
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