New Documentary Tells the Story of Criminal Justice Debt in Philadelphia

May 21, 2012

A new documentary by University of Pennsylvania law students chronicles the story of Philadelphia’s aggressive criminal justice debt collections over the past two years. As the Brennan Center has previously written, these efforts have targeted one in five Philadelphians for a total $1.5 billion in alleged fines, fees and court costs dating back to the 1970s.

The filmmakers questioned a number of men and women impacted by the collections. The interviews highlight the fundamental injustice of fees and fines that force people to pay over and over for their crimes, long after having served their sentences. 

In Philadelphia, and in many jurisdictions around the country, outstanding criminal justice debt can prevent people from accessing public benefits for themselves and their families. It can also bar people from accessing pardons or expungements of their criminal records, which is a huge barrier to employment.

“This is another example of just kicking the poor down,” Pennsylvania State Senator Shirley M. Kitchen says in the film. “The budget is being balanced on the backs of the poor, the working class, and the middle class. And all of this is just not fair.”

Criminal justice debt policies all over the country demand reform. But the collections process in Philadelphia is particularly egregious. The courts in the city lack crucial documentation to substantiate many of these debts. Thousands of formerly incarcerated people – overwhelmingly poor and from communities of color – are locked in battles over debts that they should not owe, and that they cannot pay. Seventy percent of those who allegedly owe money to the courts are elderly, disabled, impoverished or unemployed.

The ACLU and Community Legal Services of Philadelphia serve many clients trapped in cycles of criminal justice debt.  The groups have asked that the Philadelphia courts waive all debts owed prior to 2005. This is the best way to ensure that the city is not wrongfully pursuing people for debts they do not owe. It is beyond time for the city to take this important step to encourage the reentry of hard-working people trying to lead productive lives after incarceration.

Said Malissa Gamble, a formerly incarcerated community organizer who was interviewed in the film: “I take full responsibility for what I have done, but I would like to move on with my life. I don’t want to continuously be beat over the head, and beat down, so when I think that I’m doing something good, the city comes again and they try to tear me down. There’s something strange about that.”

Watch “Pay Up! Criminal Justice Debt in Philadelphia:"