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The California Supreme Court Rules That It’s Wrong to Cash In on Crime


The California Supreme Court has voted to end cash bail for those who cannot afford it. Traditionally, accused persons who cannot afford to pay their bail would have to wait for their trial behind bars. Advocates of the new law point out that this is a similar concept to a debtor's prison. So what will this decision mean for prisoners across the U.S.?

A Brief Look at Debtors Prisons

Debtors' prisons are an antiquated idea to most people, but these Dickensian institutions live on despite a ruling from the Supreme Court. At the height of their popularity between the 1600s and 1800s, debtors' prisons were a sure-fire way to lock up those who couldn't pay off their loans. People who owed as little as 60 cents were jailed indefinitely until they could pay their creditors.

The rules of debtors prisons are simple: pay up and get out, or don't pay and stay in jail. Many debtors have to work off their debts through penal labor for years on end, and some pay with their lives. Too often, prisoners would die before being free from their obligations and imprisonment, and in 1833, Congress finally stepped in.

Congress officially abolished debtors' prisons, and soon after, several states followed suit. The advent of bankruptcy law led to a more forgiving system that allowed debtors to pay off what they could while absolving whatever debts remained. But the question remains: if there was a new system, why did debtors' prisons persist into the modern day?

Mass incarceration began in the 70s and 80s and continued to explode, thanks in no small part to the crackdown on crime. At this time, politicians began to see an opportunity to appeal to a neglected group of constituents. They began to use more aggressive rhetoric and took a hardline stance against crime.

By imprisoning more people, Americans began to lose perspective of what constitutes criminal activity. This was the perfect opportunity for the justice system to resume punishing those who could not repay what they owe to society. This eventually led to a massive uptick in debt-related prison sentences, which we see the result of today.

If you want to take a more in-depth look at the history of debtors' prisons, visit here.

What Kind of Debt Can Put You in Jail?

There are two main categories of debt punishable by the justice system: private debt and criminal justice debt.

  • Private debt includes credit card debt, medical bills, payday loans, or other sources
  • Criminal justice debt includes bail, fines, traffic tickets, and other fees

The main difference between the two is that private debt may lead to involvement in the criminal justice system. In contrast, criminal justice debt is a direct result of the criminal justice system.

For example, a renter owes a lot of money on their home loan, but the creditor refuses to go through the bankruptcy process and files suit against them instead. If they fail to attend the hearing, the judge rules that they willingly avoid payment and may issue a warrant for their arrest. Keep in mind that the warrant isn't because of the debt but because of something called "contempt of court," which means that the individual willfully refused to cooperate or actively sabotaged the justice process. However, the case would never go so far if the creditor could reach an agreement in the bankruptcy court. This is imprisonment for private debt.

On the other hand, criminal justice debt is the sum of justice-related costs that the accused can't pay. For example, if someone is arrested and charged with a crime, they are processed, which quickly adds up due to fees. Most people are unaware that processing a person accused of a crime costs money – money that's not necessarily from taxes. In fact, the accused individual is often left to foot the bill regardless of whether they are guilty of the crime they were arrested for.

The California Decision

For prisoners in California, the Supreme Court Decision is long-overdue. Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar comments on the decision saying,

"The common practice of conditioning freedom solely on whether an arrestee can afford bail is unconstitutional."

Now, instead of imposing bail, California courts will offer other conditions of release like electronic monitoring, check-ins with a pretrial case manager, community housing or shelter, and drug and alcohol rehabilitation. People accused of a crime can no longer be held in prison simply because they can't post bail.

Not only are debtors' prisons a drain on taxpayer money, but they force the poor to forego necessities to avoid imprisonment. And, like most aspects of the justice system, imprisoning the poor is another way to target communities of color.

Hopefully, California's decision to eliminate cash bail will influence other states to do the same. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has found evidence of debtors' prisons in Michigan, Ohio, Washington, Louisiana, and Georgia. Until this predatory practice is over everywhere, the United States will continue to be responsible for imprisoning people simply for being poor.

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