Debtors prisons are supposed to be a thing of the past, something relegated to dusty Charles Dickens novels about Victorian England. But 21st century America's legal system has its own ways of punishing people simply for being poor.

Last month, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit in Montgomery federal court on behalf of three Alabama residents who had their driver's licenses suspended for failure to pay traffic tickets, The Associated Press reported. According to the suit, nearly 23,000 Alabamians have suspended licenses because of the nonpayment of tickets.

"A suspended driver's license has disastrous implications for individuals living in poverty," said Micah West, a senior staff attorney with the SPLC. "The U.S. Constitution prohibits the state from suspending a person's driver's license without first determining their ability to pay. Through this lawsuit, we hope to end this illegal practice in Alabama."

Similar cases are pending in North Carolina and other states, and Mississippi agreed last year to stop suspending people's driver's licenses just because they hadn't paid court fines and fees, AP reported. Mississippi may still suspend the licenses of people held in contempt by a judge for failing to pay fines or who don't respond to citations.

The argument is if a person has a traffic citation, cannot afford the fine and ends up with a suspended license as a result, that person will probably end up driving with a suspended license. A person who obeys the law and refrains from driving risks losing what income they do have. Alabama is not, after all, a state with robust public transportation, and most people have to drive themselves to work.

No one is saying let people get away with breaking the law because they're poor. What they are saying is there should be ways of dealing with traffic citations besides fines that are a far greater burden on the poor. The practical severity of a punishment should not be dependent upon one's income, making it more harsh the less money one has.

The SPLC's lawsuit "asks the federal court to declare Alabama's law for suspending driver's licenses for nonpayment unconstitutional and issue an order blocking the state law enforcement agency from suspending driver's licenses for nonpayment under the law. It also asks the court to require the agency to reinstate any driver's license previously suspended solely for nonpayment," AP reported.

Traffic citations aren't the only way the legal system penalizes the poor disproportionately. Another way is cash bail, which keeps the poor in jail while they await trial, even as those with money go free on bail on the same charge.

Efforts to reform the bail system find opposition not only from those who claim all criminal justice reform is just being "soft on crime," but also from the bail bond industry and its underwriters in the insurance industry, who profit handsomely off the current system.

According to a poll conducted by the Pretrial Justice Initiative, "Fifty-seven percent of Americans favor ending the practice of jailing people who cannot afford money bail before trial in all but extreme cases," and, "When asked about eliminating money bail entirely and replacing it with pretrial assessment and supervision, a plurality (45 percent) favors the idea."

There are many ways to reform America's dysfunctional criminal justice system, which has resulted in the world's largest prison population. Balancing the scales to avoid punishing poverty would be a good start.

 

A version of this editorial first appeared in the Decatur Daily.