News & Politics

How the U.S. Criminal Justice System Operates as a Debt-Based System of Racial Control

State-sanctioned racial oppression is achieved through a new kind of slavery.

Photo Credit: © trekandshoot/ Shutterstock.com

Green Cottenham was loitering at a train station in Columbiana, Alabama. Along with several other young men, he was arrested and convicted of vagrancy in less than 24 hours. Cottenham was sentenced to three months of hard labor. To add insult to injury, he was charged a $38 fine. Unable to satisfy the fine, he was sentenced to an additional three months of hard labor.

Alana Cain was charged with theft, accused of stealing from the New Orleans, Louisiana law firm where she worked. After pleading guilty, Cain was ordered to pay $1,800 in restitution and additional fines and fees that amounted to about $950. Late installment payments and an encounter with law enforcement due to a broken taillight culminated in her arrest.

Cottenham was arrested in 1908, a time characterized by pervasive racial segregation, terrorism from white supremacists in white sheets, and rampant political oppression.

Cain, similarly young, African American, and convicted of a petty crime, was arrested in 2015.

White elites sought to more firmly reinforce their control over African American life as Reconstruction waned in the 1870s. They relied on a series of legal measures that coalesced into what were colloquially known as the Black Codes. White-dominated state legislatures throughout the South established stringent, criminal consequences for previously petty offenses in order to neutralize the political gains made by African Americans through the Reconstruction Amendments. Laws against vagrancy and contract severance especially entrapped African Americans within the criminal justice system, capitalizing on the persistent poverty of the African American community. Even the theft of a pig, worth mere dollars, to feed a starving family could result in five years of imprisonment.

In 1901, John Davis was travelling through the Alabama countryside to meet his ailing wife at her parents’ home. Along the way, he was stopped by Robert Franklin, the local constable, who wrongfully claimed that Davis owed him money and demanded his payment. Davis asserted that he did not owe Franklin any money, but was powerless to stop his arrest. He was quickly convicted. After his sentence to ten months of hard labor, Davis was hit with a barrage of fines and court fees that he could not pay. His labor was sold by the court to Robert Franklin in order to satisfy his debts.

Like so many others, Davis was trapped in this system of convict labor leasing until his debts were deemed paid. This debt-based collusion between the state and private entities proved to be quite profitable to both. For instance, Alabama garnered $164,000 in revenue from leasing convicts by 1890 (a $4.1 million value today). Private entities, companies and individuals alike, were finally able to solve the labor shortage and revenue crises left in the wake of Emancipation.

More than a century later, one in fifteen African Americans have fallen victim to the same debt-based system of racial control that terrorized Green Cottenham and John Davis at the dawn of the 20th century.

Where once white landowners fueled the indebtedness of African Americans, that task has since been assumed by the state. Beginning in the early 2000s, many states attached hefty fees and fines to the same petty offenses criminalized by the Black Codes like vagrancy and more recent ones like unpaid parking tickets. These amplified laws exploited the economic vulnerability of African Americans like the Black Codes before them.

In early 2013, Clifford Hayes was homeless in Georgia and in need of a place to rest. Instead, he was arrested for failing to pay the more than $2000 he owed to cover the fines and probation fees associated with an arrest in 2007. A judge ordered Hayes to either pay up or risk being sentenced to eight months in jail. Hayes lamented that neither the court nor the private probation company would take his dire financial situation into account. Hayes was forced to decide between using his limited income from disability benefits to pay his debt and going to jail.

No longer abusing the labor of African Americans like John Davis, the state and private entities have instead turned their attention to nickel and diming those like Clifford Hayes as a more direct means of profit accumulation. In the midst of declining revenue and funding, the state has levied the burden of maintaining the criminal justice system on African American defendants. For example, Ferguson, Missouri utilized a barrage of fees, fines, and court costs to supply 20 percent of its budget, playing on the poverty of its 70 percent African American population. More than 8,000 state agencies received some share of the $4.5 billion obtained from civil asset forfeitures by the Department of Justice, a practice that has been shown to disparately target and impact poor African Americans. Sentinel, the private probation company monitoring Clifford Hayes in Georgia, made at least 40 percent of its profits in 2012 from charging defendants, preying on the many African American defendants who were unable to pay.

W.E.B. Dubois once observed that “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery,” referring in the latter part to the state-sanctioned racial oppression (among other atrocities) forced upon African Americans like Green Cottenham and John Davis post-Reconstruction. As Alana Cain and Clifford Hayes demonstrate today, many African Americans remain enslaved, having been criminalized and controlled by the criminal justice system because of their poverty.

Ebony Slaughter is a recent graduate of Princeton University. She currently works as a research assistant on the Criminalization of Poverty Project at the Institute for Policy Studies

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