Late On Rent? Off To Jail You Go

imagesDebtor’s prisons were abolished in the United States over a century and a half ago, yet the justice system keeps finding creative ways to ensure that the poor will spend more than their share of time behind bars. Traditionally, the poor have been victimized through drug laws or through the inability to pay for legal representation. In recent years, prisons have been finding a new type of “customer,” people who can’t pay their bills. In Arkansas, they are locking people up who can’t pay their rent. From Raw Story:

“The failure-to-vacate law was used to bring charges against more than 1,200 Arkansas tenants in 2012 alone,” read the report. “This figure greatly understates the total number of people impacted by the law. The vast majority of tenants scramble to move out when faced with a 10-day notice to vacate rather than face trial — and with good reason.”

The report continued, “Making matters considerably worse, the law strongly discourages accused tenants from pleading not guilty. Those who do are required to deposit the total amount of rent they allegedly owe with the court, which they forfeit if they are found guilty. Tenants who are unable to deposit the rent amount but plead not guilty anyway face substantially harsher fines and up to 90 days in jail. Tenants who plead guilty face none of this.”

Landlords and corrupt public officials have frequently abused the law, which is unlike landlord-tenant law in any other state in the union. HRW reported, “Several of the tenants interviewed for this report were confronted at home or at work by police officers who had warrants for their arrest. One woman was berated in open court by a district judge, who compared her to a bank robber.”

Homeowners and landlords are not subject to such restrictive laws. No state, including Arkansas, jails people for defaulting on mortgages. In Arkansas, landlords aren’t even required to maintain their properties for safety and livability.

The Arkansas General Assembly has assembled a commission to look into the injustice. They recommend that the law put landlords and tenants on a more equal footing.

In our current tax system, the poor pay a much larger portion of their income for government services like access to the justice system, yet justice means very different things depending on income bracket. For the wealthy, the court system is a way to dismiss debts. Donald Trump or his companies have filed bankruptcy four times. Each time, he comes out wealthier than before he stepped into court.

For the poor, the court system means something much more sinister.

The land of the free jails more of its citizens than any other country, including human rights abusers such as Iran and China. Not only do we jail poor people for drug offenses, we jail them for mental health issues. In 2002, 80% of the prison population made less than $2,000 a month, which was at the time, 1/3 lower than the average income.

Not only do prisoners start out poor, the fact that they were in prison almost guarantees that they will stay poor. It’s estimated that ex-convicts have an unemployment rate of between 35% and 60%. As long as the poor are legally penalized for simply being poor, prisons will have a revolving door.

Screen-Shot-2012-12-27-at-6.14.13-PM Wendy Gittleson grew up in a political family. Her passion is for social justice and fairness. She is the Senior Editor for Addicting Info. She lives in a union household. In her rare downtime, you’ll find her hiking or exploring the shoreline with her dogs. Follow her on her Facebook page or on Twitter, @wendygittleson