On average, incarcerated people are released owing $13,607 in court fines and fees, not including bail debt. Entire communities suffer as a result.
On October 6th, my collaborators and I mailed letters to over 20,000 people living in Mississippi and Florida. Each letter opened with the following:
Jubilant Greetings! We are writing to you with good news: We just got rid of some of your private probation debt!… You no longer owe the balance of this particular debt. It is gone, a gift with no strings attached.
All told, we erased over $3m dollars of probation debt, which we purchased for three cents on the dollar, or about $90,000. We did this through the Rolling Jubilee, a mechanism we developed to abolish debts that should not exist in the first place.
We devised the Rolling Jubilee in 2012, during the aftershocks of the global financial crisis. Millions had lost their homes and savings and the economy was in shambles. Using crowdfunded donations, we abolished tens of millions of dollars of medical, tuition, and payday loan debt, belonging to tens of thousands of people across the country. From the start, we conceived of the Rolling Jubilee as a vehicle for political education – one that exposed how our debts are for sale on shadowy secondary markets. Debt brokers and collectors purchase portfolios of debt at a steep discount and try to collect the full amount.
The Rolling Jubilee was hugely popular, but we always knew it wasn’t a solution to the social problems we were highlighting. You cannot buy and abolish all the predatory debt in the country – we need structural change. So, we put Rolling Jubilee to rest and founded the Debt Collective, a new kind of union that builds debtor power, and that has won billions of dollars of student debt abolition through a range of strategies including debt strikes.
The traumatic events of the last year and a half inspired us to take the Rolling Jubilee out of hibernation. The Covid pandemic has exacerbated social inequities, deepening the crisis of household indebtedness while the rich get richer. As was the case in 2008, when the banks got bailed out and underwater homeowners were left to drown, corporations got extensive debt relief from the government last spring, without any comparable assistance for regular people. Meanwhile, the uprisings after the murder of George Floyd put the issue of racial justice and police violence front and center.
It’s never been clearer that we need to abolish unjust debt and abolish our racist and predatory criminal punishment system, and that these systems are intimately connected. On average, incarcerated people are released owing $13,607 in court fines and fees, a figure that does not include bail debt. While men make up the majority of the incarcerated population in the US, it is often the women in their families who end up on the hook for these obligations. Entire communities suffer as a result.
That’s why we are kicking off our revival of the Rolling Jubilee by extinguishing probation debt. Probation is often considered an alternative to incarceration; nationwide, an estimated 4.5 million people are under some kind of supervision. Probationers who owe money to the state can be forced into what is effectively involuntary servitude. In many cases the state contracts with private probation companies, which gouge people for services and often collect what’s due through ethically and legally suspect means. Whatever the precise arrangement, an inability to pay puts one at risk of rearrest.
Probation debt is one component of a larger constellation of carceral debt. Consider the ways municipalities use the court system as a form of revenue collection, a problem exposed in Ferguson, Missouri, by the 2014 Black Lives Matter movement. To raise funds, city officials fine poor and working people for things like traffic tickets when they should be taxing affluent residents and corporations instead. Interest, surcharges, and penalties swiftly compound, and those who can’t pay are at risk of being locked up. Our system criminalizes people for not having cash on hand, forcing those who lack the money to post bail to languish in jail (even though they haven’t gone to trial or been convicted). Predictably, private companies profit from this unjust arrangement – charging incarcerated people and their families for phone calls, email, commissary, bail, probation, and more.
We explained this dynamic in the letter we sent out to the people whose debts we erased:
Across the country, courts have outsourced probation to private companies who charge fees for their “services.” With very little oversight, these companies often act like abusive debt collectors while those unable to pay run the risk of imprisonment. This system discriminates against low-income communities and communities of color and imposes the greatest financial burden on those who are the least able to afford to pay. No one should go to jail because they are unable to pay a private probation fee.
The letter included a number for people to call if they wanted to hear more or share their story, and dozens have reached out. One person described the system in Mississippi as “wicked.” People spoke of fines and fees that had ballooned when they fell behind on payments because of the pandemic. Many were confused by how much they owed and to whom, and were angered by these unpayable debts still owed after serving time, and thus having paid their proverbial “debt to society.”
These letters are only the start. This week, the Debt Collective announced the launch of our Abolish Bail Debt tool, an easy-to-use online app (what we call “legal mutual aid”). Across the state, it has the potential to abolish upwards of $500m of bail debt held by over one million co-signers, mainly women.
Through the Rolling Jubilee’s act of solidarity with probation debtors and the Debt Collective’s legal mutual aid, we hope to contribute to longstanding abolitionist efforts by helping to build a carceral debtors’ union to help fight back against the cruel and extractive system currently in place.
Across the country, our communities, overwhelmingly low income and people of color, lose billions of dollars a year to our financialized and ever-expanding criminal punishment system. The time has come to divest from systems of punishment and invest in people, and to outlaw businesses that profit from caging human beings and exploiting people’s poverty. Abolishing carceral debts is a critical part of repairing the intergenerational violence of racial capitalism, and imagining a future of true community safety and wellbeing.
Debt abolition is urgently needed, and must be coupled with the abolition of our classist and racist system of punishment and policing.
Original Article posted on The Guardian.