Economics/Class Relations

The Return of Debtors Prisons

The Daily Mail

The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that debtors’ prisons are unconstitutional – but that has done little to stop some judges from jailing people because they cannot pay their court fines.

In an troubling development straight out of a Charles Dickens novel, indigent defendants are being incarcerated in de facto modern-day debtors’ prisons.

The United States abolished traditional debtors’ prisons in the 1830s, but more than a third of states now allow to jail people who cannot or are won’t pay their debts to be jailed.

The Brennan Center for Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union have been sounding the alarm  for several years now about the proliferation of new debtors’ prisons in states like Missouri, Louisiana, Georgia, Michigan, Washington, Ohio and Colorado.

Human rights advocates claim that the system disproportionally victimizes poor people while draining government resources in the process.

‘It’s a waste of taxpayer resources, and it undermines the integrity of the justice system,’ Carl Takei, staff attorney for the ACLU’s National Prison Project, told

In a 2012 report, the Brennan Center laid out how much it costs to jail debtors, showing that rather than boosting revenues for a county, the scheme actually ends up costing the municipality more.

For example, a county in North Carolina collected $33,476 in debts in 2009, but spent $40,000 keeping 246 debtors in the clink.

The U.S. Supreme Court has addressed this issue on three separate occasions in the 70s and 80s, ruling that courts are not allowed to jail someone for unpaid debts if the person is indigent.

Critics say that the punishment can be highly counterproductive because it is generally more difficult to hold onto or find a job after serving time in jail.

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