Crimsumerism: Combating Consumer Abuses in the Criminal Legal System
48 Pages Posted: 12 Apr 2019
Date Written: March 18, 2019
Increasingly, Americans who have contact with the criminal legal system find themselves deprived not just of their liberty but also of their property. In recent years, advocates have shed light on the court-imposed fines and fees levied on low-income individuals who have contact with the criminal legal system. But less attention has been paid to the charges imposed on these individuals and their families by the private companies that now administer components of the American criminal and immigration legal systems. Much criminal legal debt is now owed not to the state, but rather to the vast network of private companies profiteering from the criminalization of poverty and communities of color. As a result, a person in jail who wants to make bail or to call their family, or a parent who wants to make sure their child has basic necessities while in prison, or a teenager who has just been ordered to attend a rehabilitation program, all face the potential trauma not just of incarceration but also of spiraling indebtedness.
This Article seeks to illuminate the commercial abuses occurring in the shadows of the criminal legal system — to draw attention to the problem of “crimsumerism.” The Article also seeks to ameliorate the problem. In addition to traditional civil rights-focused claims like § 1983, the Article proposes the application to private correctional businesses of a different set of laws entirely: consumer protection statutes. If bail bond companies and private debt collectors are routinely engaged in abusive, predatory behavior with respect to individuals who have contact with our criminal legal system, then those businesses should be held accountable through the same laws that would apply were they operating in any other corner of the marketplace. Holding bail bond agents and debt collectors to account through the Truth-in-Lending Act, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, or state Unfair and Deceptive Acts and Practices laws means that some of the most vulnerable consumers in our society will have access to additional protections, while advocates simultaneously work to end mass incarceration and criminalization in the United States. Over the long term, vigorous enforcement of consumer protection laws will reduce the predatory practices that are currently widespread in the modern corrections industry and ultimately, perhaps, help to eliminate exploitation and other abuses from our criminal legal system altogether.
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