The Alan Sondheim Mail Archive

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Date: Mon, 10 Jan 2011 01:39:50
From: Portside Moderator <moderator@PORTSIDE.ORG>
Subject: The Scott Sisters' "Debt to Society" and the New Jim Crow

The Scott Sisters' "Debt to Society" and the New Jim Crow
By James Ridgeway
Mother Jones
January 7, 2011

Jamie and Gladys Scott walked out of prison today into
the free world. As reported here in March of last year,
the sisters were convicted, on dubious grounds, of an
$11 armed robbery, and sentenced to life in prison. Both
sisters lost 17 years of their lives behind bars before
Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour suspended the
remainder of their draconian sentences; Jamie also
forfeited her health, and is now suffering from end-
stage renal disease. Yet the sisters' "debt to society"
is still far from paid.

First and foremost, the conditions of their release
stipulate that Gladys Scott must give Jamie Scott a
kidney. From the very beginning of this medical scandal,
in which Jamie's health was further compromised by
inadequate prison health care, Gladys offered her kidney
for transplant to her sister. For the governor to
mandate this donation is both unprecedented and
unconscionable. As others have pointed out, releasing
Jamie Scott before she has this costly life-saving
surgery could also stand to save the state a
considerable amount of money; a donation from her sister
could save even more, and is apparently part of the
price of their freedom.

At the same time, the Scott sisters will have to pay out
money to maintain their freedom. Rather than pardoning
Jamie and Gladys, Barbour suspended their sentences.
According to Nancy Lockhart, a legal advocate who played
an instrumental role in the sisters' release, each will
have to pay $52 a month for the administration of their
parole in Florida, where their mother lives and where
they plan to reside. Since they were serving life
sentences, that means $624 a year for the rest of their
lives. Both women are now in their thirties; if they
live 40 more years, each will have paid the state
$24,960. Of course, Jamie, in particular, will be lucky
to live so long. Ad: PacificResearchInstitute

The consequence of failing to pay the fees charged for
parole or probation can be a return to prison. As the
Southern Center for Human Rights has documented, such
fees are part of a larger system that adds up to what
are in effect modern-day debtor's prisons:

     Contrary to what many people may believe, there are
     debtors' prisons throughout the United States where
     people are imprisoned because they are too poor to
     pay fines and fees.

     The United States Supreme Court in Bearden v.
     Georgia, 461 U.S. 660 (1983), held that courts
     cannot imprison a person for failure to pay a
     criminal fine unless the failure to pay was
     "willful."  However, this constitutional commandment
     is often ignored.

     Courts impose substantial fines as punishment for
     petty crimes as well as more serious ones. Besides
     the fines, the courts are assessing more and more
     fees to help meet the costs of the ever-increasing
     size of the criminal justice system: fees for ankle
     bracelets for monitoring; fees for anger management
     classes; for drug tests, for crime victims' funds,
     for crime laboratories, for court clerks, for legal
     representation, for various retirement funds, and
     for private probation companies that do nothing more
     than collect a check once a month.

     People who cannot afford the total amount assessed
     may be allowed to pay in monthly installments, but
     in many jurisdictions those payments must be
     accompanied by fees to a private probation company
     that collects them. A typical fee is $40 per month.
     People who lose their jobs or encounter unexpected
     family hardships and are unable to maintain payments
     may be jailed without any inquiry into their ability
     to pay or the wilfulness of their failure to pay.

This system of imprisonment-by-poverty in turn fits into
what author Michelle Alexander, among others, have
called "The New Jim Crow"-an America in which mass
incarceration has become the new means of wielding
control over poor African Americans. For more on how
Mississippi and other southern states have historically
used fines and imprisonment to extend the institution of
slavery, see today's post on the Prison Culture Blog.


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