The story of a poor Iraq War veteran who spent 22 days in jail because he couldn’t pay a $50 court fee has sparked a national conversation on the unofficial reincarnation of debtors’ prisons.
Stephen Papa, a 27-year-old veteran who was homeless and struggling to make ends meet, described to NPR how he found himself in jail for 22 days, all over a $50 court fee he couldn’t pay.
“It was kind of embarrassing 'cause I'm not that type of person, but we had got highly intoxicated and climbed onto the roof of an abandoned building,” described Papa to NPR’s Joseph Shapiro. “There was a hole broken in the window so we went inside and then we got surrounded and then we got arrested.”
Papa was arrested and convicted of destruction of property and resisting arrest, and when put in front of a judge, he was ordered to pay $50 on the spot towards his $2,600 court fee. Papa only had $25 on him at the time, and despite pleading with the judge to let him pay what he had, the judge wouldn’t budge, even as Papa explained that he recently got a job.
“I just wanted to add, your honor, like I've been trying - I tried really hard to get this job and I'm - I'd really like to keep it,” said Papa to Judge Benjamin Logan.
Judge Logan wasn’t hearing it, and Papa was sentenced to 22 days in prison for not being able to pay the $50 on the spot. After being released from prison, Papa called his job to see if he still had a position, but his manager informed him that they filled it.
“I tried telling the judge, like, throwing me in jail is going to do no good,” said Papa. “You're not going to get your fines like you want and I'm going to lose my job and you're really not going to get your fines if I don't have a job. And it's just, I don't know, it just baffled me.”
In the end, as NPR’s Joseph Shapiro explains, Papa was able to get a job, but it pays much less than his previous job, and now, he’s struggling to pay back what he owes the court.
“His boss did call him back to the factory when another worker got injured, but that was to fill in for just a few months,” explained Shapiro. “Now he's found a new job that he likes as a security guard, but it pays a lot less, $4 an hour less. To stay out of jail, Stephen Papa needs that full-time job, and to keep paying the $40 a month that he still owes the court.”
Debtors’ prisons were outlawed in the 1800s, but as NPR points out, cases like Papa’s aren’t rare, and it seems as though more and more people are being jailed for unpaid court fees and debt.