On October 19, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) filed a judicial ethics complaint [PDF] against an Alabama judge that reportedly told people owing court fines to donate blood or go to jail. The order was captured on an audio recording that SPLC has posted on their YouTube channel.
The complaint accuses Perry County Circuit Judge Marvin Wiggins of violating both federal and Alabama law by telling people ordered to court to pay fines and fees “If you do not have any money and you don’t want to go to jail, consider giving blood today and bring me your receipt back, or the sheriff has enough handcuffs for those who do not have money.”
As the SPLC complaint notes, people can not be incarcerated under US law for failure to pay a court fine if they are financially unable to do so. The ban on debtor’s prisons has been long established in the United States and was explicitly ruled on in a 1983 case called Bearden v. Georgia, which held that a judge may only jail a person if they “willfully” refuse to pay a court debt.
Nor, of course, are forced blood “donations” a legitimate form of payment for court fines anywhere, including the state of Alabama.
Though the actions of Judge Wiggins seem extreme, an investigation by National Public Radio (NPR) found that, despite the Bearden v. Georgia decision, many Americans face jail for being unable to pay court debts.
In a state by state breakdown, NPR found that the system feeds on many of those too poor to pay the court debts via additional fees for not paying or not paying on time. The investigation revealed that in most states, offenders can get billed for their own probation and parole supervision and in all jurisdictions outside Hawaii and DC there is a fee for the electronic monitoring devices defendants and offenders are ordered to wear. If those costs bankrupt people they can still go to jail for not paying their court fees.
A study [PDF] by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) also found that courts were “jailing indigent defendants for legal debts they can never hope to manage.” The ACLU claimed that court fee collection had become a vital source of revenue for some court systems with court debts increasing to fill budget gaps.
One of the contributing factors to the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri was the acrimony and tension created by the Ferguson Police Department becoming a “collection agency” for the local municipal government. With courts increasingly funding their operations by using the threat of jail to gain court fees from poor people, similar unrest may be coming.