In 2010, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) published a report entitled "In For a Penny: The Rise of America's New Debtors' Prisons", which highlighted the increasing number of poor defendants being jailed because of their incapacity to pay legal debts, although debtors prisons were abolished 200 years ago in the US. What is initially a basic debt (unpaid rent, medical bill etc) evolves into a court fine when the debtor is brought before a civil court, which means that the debt is increased by the court fees and the private probation company's fees when the probation has been outsourced.
In 2012, the New York Times related the story of a 31 years old woman who was handed over to a private probation company and jailed for a debt that slightly exceeded $1,500. William M. Dawson, a lawyer and Democratic Party Activist, filed a class action lawsuit against the local authorities and the private probation company, Judicial Correction Services.
Sentinel Offender Services, LLC, a private for-profit probation company, has also recently been sued in a class action lawsuit, which recently ended with a decision from the Georgia Supreme Court in favour of the plaintiffs.
According to ACLU, "these modern-day debtors' prisons impose devastating human costs, waste taxpayer money and resources, undermine [the] criminal justice system, are racially skewed, and create a two-tiered system of justice".
Unfortunately, as NPR revealed it, more and more people are jailed because of debts they cannot afford to settle, although prison obviously makes things worse as it reduces, or annihilates, their financial strength and hence their capacity to pay their court fines.
In the 1983 decision Bearden v. Georgia, the Supreme Court held: "If the probationer has willfully refused to pay the fine or restitution when he has the resources to pay or has failed to make sufficient bona fide efforts to seek employment or borrow money to pay, the State is justified in using imprisonment as a sanction to enforce collection. But if the probationer has made all reasonable bona fide efforts to pay the fine and yet cannot do so through no fault of his own, it is fundamentally unfair to revoke probation automatically without considering whether adequate alternative methods of punishing".
However, the 1983 decision didn't specify what the term "willfully" actually covers.
Moreover, courts have found that incarcerating people because they can't afford to pay legal debts is contrary to the 14th Amendment that addresses many of the rights of citizens.
According to the Birmingham based lawyer, Lisa W.Borden:“With so many towns economically strapped, there is growing pressure on the courts to bring in money rather than mete out justice".