The nation’s top state judges have taken a big step to end the practice of sending impoverished people to debtors’ prisons, NPR reports. The National Task Force on Fines, Fees and Bail Practices issued a “bench card” — a clear set of instructions — to be used by state judges across the nation. When NPR ran a series in 2014 about how people end up behind bars when they don’t have money to pay court fines and fees — even on minor infractions like traffic tickets — one cause of the problem was confusion among state judges.
Many didn’t know that, in 1983, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the practice. Some courts had no set standard for determining who was too poor to pay fines and fees that typically run hundreds or thousands of dollars. Some judges told impoverished people to pay with their veterans or welfare benefits or o get money from a relative. One homeless Georgia man was caught stealing a can of beer worth less than $2, but was sentenced to a year in jail when he couldn’t pay fines and costs that ran more than $400 a month. The new two-page set of guidelines tell judges that they’re allowed to send people to jail for non-payment only when they have the means to pay, but “willfully” refuse to pay. The instructions spell out how to determine who falls below the poverty line, and how to come up with alternative sanctions, like reducing a fine, extending the time to pay it, or requiring community service, instead. “It’s constitutionally right and it’s also morally right,” says Maureen O’Connor, Ohio chief justice and co-chair of the national task force.