Debtors' prisons have been outlawed in America since 1833 — but poor people are still being sent to jail when they can't pay court fines and fees.
A town court in New Jersey routinely “extorts” fines for non-criminal offenses from the family and friends of people who are unable to pay, a federal court there recently found. Judge Dennis P. McInerney threatened to jail indigent offenders in his Township of Burlington Municipal Court unless they telephoned someone to pay fines for them, the scalding 44-page decision found.
“This policy and practice effectively extorts payment from the family or friends of those indigent defendants, and violates their rights every step of the way,” U.S. District Judge Noel Hillman wrote in his March 30 decision condemning it.
The decision is the latest in a series of cases involving what critics charge is unconstitutional policing for profit — where municipalities use the criminal justice system to coerce payments of fines, fees, court costs and interest payments that then pad their own budgets.
In New Orleans, for example, a December 2017 federal court decision found that poor people there were, in effect, being held in a debtors' prison by the city’s criminal court system, because the judges were citing defendants for contempt of court and jailing them unless they paid court debts, including fees for things like transcripts. The judges could not cite any legal basis authorizing their actions.
One lawyer's clients told him it felt like being kidnapped and held for ransom.
Another decision, issued by a federal court in New Mexico on April 2, allowed a lawsuit against the Albuquerque Police Department to proceed because its vehicle seizure program is allegedly motivated by “unlawful profit incentive." In 2016, an Alabama judge was censured for forcing people unable to pay fines to give blood or go to jail, according to a report in the Montgomery Advertiser.
The case from New Jersey began in May 2014 when Judge McInerney demanded that then 20-year old Anthony Kneisser immediately pay a $239 littering fine (for throwing a cigarette butt out the window of his car), and jailed him when he could not.
“You need to make a payment today, sir. Go make a phone call,” the judge ordered, a transcript of the proceeding shows.
At the time, Kneisser was in college and making nine dollars an hour as a part-time cook. When Kneisser told the judge he didn't have any friends who could help him pay, Judge McInerney ordered him jailed for five days.
“I gave you a chance to make a phone call, sir.” Judge McInerney explained.
Police officers who searched Kneisser before placing him in a cell found 11 cents in his pockets, according to one of Kneisser’s lawyers, Alexi Velez, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.
Kneisser was ultimately released five hours later after coming up with the cash. First, he called his brother who, in turn, called their father. The dad wrote a check covering his son’s fine, and Kneisser’s brother went to the court and hand-delivered the funds to the clerk.
“It absolutely is extortion,” Marguerite Kneisser, Anthony’s sister, told Oxygen.com. She's a lawyer who drafted and filed the legal complaint in her brother’s case.
“This is really rampant in New Jersey,” she said. “Towns use the courts as a cash cow. They use it to generate revenue. It’s not right. It’s not justice.”
A 2016 investigation by the Asbury Park Press, which found that the state's municipal court system “treats hundreds of thousands of residents each year as human ATMs,” backed up her claims.
For profit policing is an enduring issue around the country. A National Public Radio investigation found that hundreds of Americans end up in jail because they can't pay fines courts say they owe, while a Buzzfeed report found “a modern-day version of debtors prison" in Texas, with judges “locking up people for days, weeks, and sometimes even months because they did not pay fines they could not afford."
"We already know that the very poorest people in our communities are being targeted by law enforcement," Bill Quigley, a law professor at Loyola University and one of the lawyers in the case from New Orleans, told Oxygen.com. "Now we are seeing people being forced to pay money to get out on bond, to pay money for ankle bracelets, to pay for probation fees, to pay court costs, to pay their jailers, and on and on.”
Many Americans first learned about the issue after the 2014 killing of unarmed, 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was shot by Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson. The United States Department of Justice launched an investigation into the death that found Ferguson City, police, and court officials worked together “to maximize revenue at every stage of the enforcement process.”
Last year, the United States Commission on Civil Rights surveyed 20,000 municipalities with populations over 5,000 nationwide and found 38 that received 10% or more of their revenue from fines and fees.
In the New Jersey case, Judge McInerney — who still serves as a judge in both the town and city of Burlington, New Jersey — has decided cases in 11 jurisdictions over the course of his judicial career. Velez, the New Jersey ACLU lawyer, said she obtained jail records from every county in the state and found that “thousands" of New Jersey residents are incarcerated in county jails every year for not being able to pay municipal court fines and fees.
“That’s a debtor’s prison,” Velez said. “No one should go to jail for being unable to pay fines or fees. The state really needs to look into this.”
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy declined to comment for this story. But Peter McAleer, a spokesperson for the New Jersey court system, told Oxygen.com that putting people in jail who can't pay the court is not official policy.
“It is our policy not to jail the indigent. Under court policy, defendants are offered the option of paying fines in installments and judges can impose community service in lieu of jail time,” he said.
Actual practices appear to be quite different. This spring, another New Jersey municipal judge, Richard Thompson, plead guilty to filing false records to facilitate a ticket-fixing scheme that financially benefited several towns where he served as a judge, according to Monmouth County prosecutors.
The scheme steered $500,000 to those towns, according to NJ.com, a New Jersey news website.