In Mississippi, People Who Steal Can Be Forced To Work Until Their Debt Is Paid

H/T Western Journal.

I think this should be implemented nationwide.

Has Mississippi brought back debtor’s prison? That’s what critics are calling a restitution initiative in the Magnolia State, one which has attracted a lot of attention of late.

The spotlight is back on the program thanks to a long investigative piece published by USA Today and written by Anna Wolfe and Michelle Liu of MississippiToday and the Marshall Project, a nonprofit journalistic organization that deals with criminal justice issues.

The beginning of the story deals with Annita Husband, sentenced to one of these prisons for embezzling $13,000 from her employer, a payday loan supplier.

According to the piece, Husband was sentenced to “the Flowood Restitution Center, a motel converted into a jail surrounded by razor wire, nestled among truck stops and an outlet mall. Here, Husband slept in a room with seven other women, sharing a mirror to get ready in the mornings, enduring strip searches for contraband at night.

“The corrections department would not release her until she earned enough money at her $7.25-an-hour part-time job to clear her debts and cover $11 a day for ‘room and board’ at Flowood.

The state took all of her paycheck except for $10, paid in quarters, which she could use for items like “soap and deodorant,” the article stated.

“If I wasn’t at work, I was in prison,” Husband told the reporters.

The opening of the piece leaves out several crucial parts of the story, however. Husband had previous convictions for writing bad checks and stealing money from Sears. After her embezzlement scheme was discovered, she was sentenced to seven years behind bars.

“But the judge allowed her to serve five years of probation instead as long as she paid $50 a month to the corrections department for monitoring her, plus $200 a month toward her fines, fees and restitution,” the story read.

She struggled to keep up due to the fact she was working menial jobs and caring for her dying husband. When a judge told her she was going to jail the next time she didn’t pay, she stopped reporting at all. Between 2011 and 2015, there was a cycle of probation violations that ended up with Husband at Flowood, working at places like Church’s Chicken for low wages until her restitution was paid.

The system, to many, seems unreasonably harsh. It isn’t just debtors who are in there, mind you, but often people who can’t pay court costs and fines; 20 percent of those in the minimum-security facilities are in there for drug possession convictions.

And, of course, the piece made sure to mention the state’s problematic history of racial issues.

“The state has a long history of forcing prisoners — especially black men — to work,” the article read.

“After slavery was abolished, Mississippi leased a soaring number of prisoners to private industry. Public outcry over deaths and mistreatment forced the state to end that program in 1890. Mississippi then founded the state penitentiary known as Parchman Farm, which was modeled after a slave plantation. It still houses over 3,000 of the state’s 21,000 prisoners.”

Most of this, mind you, took place well over a century ago.

Meanwhile, judges who sentenced individuals to the program defended it.

Clarksville circuit court Judge Charles Webster “said that the program teaches them about responsibility by requiring them to show up for work and meet financial obligations.”

“Going to the restitution center’s better than going to prison, I would think,” Webster said.

Jones County Judge Dal Williamson, meanwhile, noted “you’ve got a victim out there that needs to be made whole,” adding that he wouldn’t send individuals to the minimum-security prisons unless they had refused to pay.

That’s now part of the law, too: As of 2018, to be sentenced to the program, an individual has to show an unwillingness to pay as opposed to a lack of means.

Furthermore, unwillingness to pay usually isn’t the only factor in getting sentenced to the program. A review of 200 cases found that 80 percent of the individuals had been sentenced to it because of probation violations, with only 20 percent being sentenced for failing to pay restitution alone.

“Almost all of the inmates were given a specific amount of money they must earn before their release,” the article read. “In 15 cases we found, the judges sentenced defendants to the restitution centers for an amount of money and a time limit of 90 days to three years.”

And then there’s the victim to consider. Paul Goldman, who ran the payday loan provider Husband stole from, says he almost never receives full restitution from employee theft. If they’re not repaying it, he says, he wants them in the program, “Just for the sake of justice.”

Husband eventually broke out of the program and, when police caught up with her some time later, spent roughly 10 months in prison. When she finished parole last September, she was still $10,000 behind in restitution.

In addition to questions of whether Mississippi’s system is heavy-handed, there are also questions as to whether it’s constitutional.

A 1983 case, Bearden v. Georgia, made it clear that only individuals who chose willfully not to pay debts could be sentenced to prison. It’s also worth noting that debtors prisons were outlawed by the federal government in 1833 — and while the government left the decision on debtors prisons to the states, it’s fair to say they’re anachronistic.

Plus, the article argues, states experimented with similar programs in the 1970s but found them “expensive and ineffective.”

So, are these debtors prisons justice or remnants of a past that we don’t want to dredge up?

The efficacy of Mississippi’s program is arguably going to come under greater scrutiny, if the piece published by USA Today is any indication.