Missouri is among many states across the country where people in poverty are suffering particularly damaging consequences from initially minor brushes with the criminal justice system. Towns, cities, counties and state governments are increasingly relying on citations, fines and court fees to balance their budgets. Instead of raising taxes, which impact all residents and are often tied to income and wealth, these localities are depending on fines to cover basic costs of local services. As a result, poor people who are unable to pay the fees are suffering disproportionate effects of this type of enforcement.
In 1983, the Supreme Court ruled that people cannot be imprisoned because they are too poor to pay their fines. However, versions of the practice continue nationwide to the present day. Many people jailed for being unable to pay these debts were never criminally convicted or even charged. Instead, the initial issue was a minor fine that escalated due to the person’s inability to pay the bill and the associated mounting debt. In addition to imprisonment, other people have their driver’s license taken away. As a result, they may lose their jobs or rely on driving without a license, putting them at risk for further penalties and fines.
Other people may be placed on probation, but the terms of the probation are not tied to traditional good behavior but instead to debt repayment. In some parts of the country, municipalities and counties are contracting with private debt collection firms. These companies impose additional hefty fees on debtors and may threaten people with imprisonment if they fail to pay.
Of course, an interaction with the criminal justice system can have serious negative consequences for people in any economic situation. People facing criminal charges may work with a defense attorney to challenge police allegations and aim to prevent a conviction.