“The county convict leasing system, with its efficient mechanisms for forcing Black men to do the bidding of White business operators, soon leached into the process of collecting debts of any kind. White farmers who advanced money to Black tenants at the beginning of a crop season began to enforce their debts not by evicting those Black men who fell behind, but by swearing out criminal warrants accusing them of fraud. Facing certain conviction by a local White judge, most laborers willingly agreed to accept their White landlords- who had brought them to court in the first place- as their ‘sureties.’ The defendants typically would ‘confess judgment, an archaic legal concept under which the accused confesses his responsibility before being tried. The local judge then accepted payment and forfeiture of a bond from the White surety, rather than render a verdict on the alleged ‘crime.’ In return, the African American farmer would sign a contract to work without compensation for the White landlord for however long it took to pay back the amount of the bond.
The instances of confessing judgment spread rapidly through the farming regions of the South, according to local court dockets of the 1880s and 1890s…On its face, the arrangement appeared similar to other practices that would remain common in the courts for the next century and beyond- granting mercy to a criminal partly in exchange for a commitment to repair the damage of their crimes, and place themselves under the close supervision of a trusted party.
Occasionally, confessing judgment in the 1880s was precisely just such a legitimate, human resolution of a legal matter. But only rarely. The records of thousands of prosecutions show it was vastly more likely that an arrested Black man- knowing he had no possibility of true due process, or acquittal- agreed to confess judgment specifically to avoid the far more dire alternatives that he knew lay in wait. It was the nineteenth-century equivalent to modern plea bargains, in which a defendant agrees to a lesser sentence ahead of trial in order to be spared any possibility of the most severe punishment. The exception being that in the variation of this practice in the 1880s, it was a nearly forgone conclusion that the man under arrest would be found guilty of something. Often, his only hope for moderating the blow was to negotiate the most bearable form of forced labor.
The Black men who confessed judgment avoided being sold into the slave mines, but traded that fate for onerous labor contracts closer to home or working under men they had at least elementary knowledge of- their present landlord, or often with the same farm families under whom they or their slave forebears had worked in antebellum times. The result was that Black tenant farmers and sharecroppers often returned as uncompensated convict laborers, subject to imprisonment, shackles, and the lash, to the same fields where a few days earlier they had worked as independent, free men. White farmers often continued to claim that convict laborer was incurring additional debts for necessities such as visits by a doctor, medical care, clothing, damaged implements, or housing. Once captured by a contract under which the Black man was not free until all his debts were paid, the ‘convict’- who in fact might never have been found guilty of a crime- could be held almost indefinitely. Moreover, almost any White person who became involved in the resolution of a Black man’s legal situation could casually add his own ‘costs’ to the balance of a prisoner’s debt and compel him to labor for an even longer period.” -From, “Slavery By Another Name” By: Douglas A. Blackmon