South Carolina Supreme Court issues friendly reminder that debtors prisons are illegal

Inside Subprime: November 10, 2017

By Caroline Thompson

Donald Beatty, Chief Justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court, has had enough. Although debtors prisons – or the act of keeping someone behind bars for failing to pay fines and fees – are barred by the Constitution, courts around the state have for years been ignoring this fact, convicting people without evidence for failing to show up to court dates, and putting out arrest warrants on impoverished citizens who couldn’t afford to pay fines for low-level violations like traffic tickets. Additionally, many of these erroneously-jailed South Carolinians were never informed of their right to an attorney, leaving them to sit behind bars with no way to make bail, and no one to speak on their behalf.

Last week, Beatty, spurred by an investigation from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) which found that “the South Carolina municipalities of Beaufort and Bluffton were able to extract fines from thousands of poor people every year, without ever providing them access to a public defender,” issued a firm reminder to to summary court judges that they need to actually follow the letter of the law.

“It has continually come to my attention that defendants, who are neither represented by counsel nor have waived counsel, are being sentenced to imprisonment,” he wrote in a memorandum to South Carolina magistrates and municipal court judges. “This is a clear violation of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel and numerous opinions of the Supreme Court of the United States. All defendants facing criminal charges in your courts that carry the possibility of imprisonment must be informed of their right to counsel and, if indigent, their right to court-appointed counsel prior to proceeding with trial. Absent a waiver of counsel, or the appointment of counsel for an indigent defendant, summary court judges shall not impose a sentence of jail time, and are limited to imposing a sentence of a fine only for those defendants, if convicted.”

As a result of Beatty’s order, tens of thousands of arrest warrants for low-level offenses have been thrown out, and judges around the state could face jail time themselves if they fail to comply with the order. According to The Post and Courier, however, many fear this may be bad news for the victims of these crimes, some of which include domestic violence. But the data proves that the vast majority of these offenders are wanted for nonviolent violations. In fact, a report from Horry County found that, of the 7,500 recalled warrants in the county, more than 4,600 stem from traffic, and just 230 from domestic violence cases.

Charleston County Chief Magistrate Leroy Linen agreed with Beatty’s conclusions, adding that putting so many people in jail for these kinds of offenses is actually hurting  – not helping – the state.

“There is so much collateral damage from jailing them,” Linen said. “We had been doing this practice all over the state, and nobody was saying anything. … (The chief justice) was trying to impress upon everyone that we must … give people their due process rights.”

“When imposing a fine, consideration should be given to a defendant’s ability to pay,” wrote Beatty. “I am mindful of the constraints that you face in your courts, but these principles of due process to all defendants who come before you cannot be abridged.”

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