Too Poor to Afford Freedom

Is being poor punishable by imprisonment? Should only those who can afford it be allowed freedom?

Neil Sobol, Associate Professor at Texas A&M University School of Law, explores the topic of imprisonment for debt in the article, “Charging the Poor: Criminal Justice Debt & Modern-Day Debtors’ Prisons.”

In colonial times in the United States, individuals were commonly imprisoned for their debt. Now, despite prohibitions against it,  poor and needy individuals are regularly incarcerated for unpaid debts. 

These “modernday debtors’ prisons” have been the subject of at least ten lawsuits in 2015 against municipalities who used them, primarily for criminal justice debt. 

 

For example, January 2015, in Georgia:

The ACLU filed a federal lawsuit challenging debt collection practices that have resulted in the jailing of people simply because they are poor. The case was brought on behalf of Kevin Thompson, a black teenager in DeKalb County, Georgia. The ACLU charges that DeKalb County and the for-profit company Judicial Corrections Services teamed up to engage in a coercive debt collection scheme that focuses on revenue generation at the expense of protecting poor people’s rights.

The ACLU tells us that “State and local courts have increasingly attempted to supplement their funding by charging fees to people convicted of crimes, including fees for public defenders, prosecutors, court administration, jail operation, and probation supervision. And in the face of mounting budget deficits at the state and local level, courts across the country have used aggressive tactics to collect these unpaid fines and fees, including for traffic offenses and other low-level offenses. These courts have ordered the arrest and jailing of people who fall behind on their payments, without affording any hearings to determine an individual’s ability to pay or offering alternatives to payment such as community service.”

The effects of this system are daunting. Prof. Sobol states:

“The impact of criminal justice debt is especially severe on the poor and minorities as they are frequently assessed “poverty penalties” for interest, late fees, installment plans, and collection. Often they have to decide between paying criminal justice debt and buying family necessities. The deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in New York, and Freddie Gray in Baltimore have prompted renewed calls for investigation of the adverse treatment of the poor and minorities in the criminal justice system. The fear of arrest, incarceration, and unfair treatment for those owing criminal justice debt creates distrust in the system.”

Neil L. Sobol, Charging the Poor: Criminal Justice Debt & Modern-Day Debtors’ Prisons, 75 Md. L. Rev. 486 (2016).
Available at: http://scholarship.law.tamu.edu/facscholar/727

Advertisements

Linguistics and the Law

Robert Rodman’s thesis entitled Linguistics and the Law draws from the conviction of a Haitian-born American sentenced to 12 years for dealing cocaine.

“The verdict was based in part on a surreptitious recording of the drug deal. Although the drug dealer on the tape spoke a dialect of American Black English, and the defendant speaks English with a Creole accent, the State persuaded the jury that the Haitian disguised his voice by purposefully dropping his accent. His ability to perform this feat was attributed in testimony to the fact that he had been an interpreter for the United States Army in Haiti, and was therefore a linguist, and therefore understood ‘sound change’, and therefore could disguise his voice by dropping his foreign accent. This absurd chain of non sequiturs, and the resulting miscarriage of justice, is the result of linguistic naivety and would not have occurred if the court knew that an interpreter is not necessarily a linguist, and that sound change refers to the historical development of languages.”

“Language and the law, once a subfield of sociolinguistics, is now a robust, independent area of study, where lawyers and linguists collaborate to deepen their knowledge. It has spawned associations such as the IAFL that sponsor conferences such as the one for which this paper is written. International journals such as Forensic Linguistics, The International Journal of Speech, Language, and the Law have arisen in which an ever-growing body of scholarship explores the multifaceted effect of language on legal matters.

Most of the work in this field approaches the topic from the point of view of the use of language. For example, trial lawyers learn to avoid language usage that introduces unwarranted assumptions, such as “When did you stop beating your wife?” They do not learn about presuppositions and the logical structure of language. That’s linguistics: the science that describes and explains language.”

http://ljp.utk.edu/linguistics-and-the-law/

 

Economics of Criminal Law

Criminal Law and Economics applies economic theory to explain crime, law enforcement, criminal law and criminal procedure.

Excerpt:

Potential criminals are economically rational. They compare the gain from committing a crime with the expected cost, including the risk of punishment, the possibility of social stigma, and eventual psychological costs. A criminal is an individual for whom the gain from committing a crime more than compensates the expected cost.  . . . Overall, it seems crime rates are responsive to changes in punishment.

The advantage of an economic approach to crime is that it avoids interpersonal assessments and is more of a neutral analysis.”

Nuno Garoupa, Introduction to Criminal Law and Economics, at vii, viii (2d ed. 2009).

Photo-http://www.wichitasedgwickcountycrimestoppers.com