Cash-starved municipalities regularly impose criminal justice debt on individuals too poor to pay. Local courts deny criminal debtors’ a meaningful inquiry into their ability to pay prior to being assessed sky-high fees, often predictably resulting in default on their payments. Nonpayment under these municipal schemes is enforced through imprisonment solely for the purpose of compelling repayment. Under these circumstances, criminal debtors find themselves in modern debtors’ prisons, a conceptual cycle of debt and imprisonment nearly impossible to escape. This Note will argue the modern debtors’ prison is peonage, coerced labor for the repayment of debt, which is prohibited under the Thirteenth Amendment and enforced through the Anti-Peonage Act of 1867. This Note will consider the current remedial scheme under the Anti-Peonage Act as a potential remedy to the modern debtors’ prison and argue this scheme is insufficient to protect low-income criminal debtors from insidious municipal revenue collection practices. Further, it will propose Congress should utilize its enforcement powers within section two of the Thirteenth Amendment to enhance existing private remedies under the Peonage Act, and effectively dismantle the modern debtors’ prison.
Sarah Morgan, CIVIL RIGHTS/CONSTITUTIONAL LAW—INDEBTED TO THE STATE: HOW THE THIRTEENTH AMENDMENT’S PROMISE OF ABOLITION HOLDS PROTECTIONS AGAINST THE MODERN DEBTORS’ PRISONS, 39 W. New Eng. L. Rev. 327 (2017), https://digitalcommons.law.wne.edu/lawreview/vol39/iss2/7