- Politics and Social Issues
Incarcerated in the Modern Day Debtor’s Prison
New Debtor's Prison
Return of Debtor's Prison
Think that debtor’s prison is a nightmarish thing of the past? That Charles Dickens' books relating the horrors of debtor’s prisons in 19th century England no longer exist? Think again.
There are a variety of ways modern people in the United States are currently being incarcerated for debts owed, regardless of the fact that in 1833 the United States abolished Federal imprisonment for unpaid debts. Similarly, around that time, many states took action to outlaw the practice as well.
Sadly, there has been a reappearance of incarceration for debt in the United States. Ironically incarceration reduces the chance that those who owe can pay off the debt at all. In addition, taxpayers pay the exorbitant cost to incarcerate generally non-violent people with all variety of criminals.
Since the opportunity to resolve debts depends on being free to work or otherwise to come up with the money, jailed debtors face a catch-22 situation: They cannot leave to resolve the debt, nor will they be released without paying the debt!
Debts That Are Not Forgiven
There are specific types of debts which will not normally be forgiven for US citizens. It is fairly well known that the IRS will relentlessly pursue citizens for taxes. Howsoever owing fines or court costs can also land a person in jail as well as being delinquent in child support payments. Ironically, the high cost of incarcerating citizens often far outstrips the debt itself and is paid for by tax payers.
In the video below, Ricardo Graham talks about his February 2007 incarceration for court fines. For a $745 fine, Ricardo was kept in prison for 40 days, costing RI taxpayers approximately $4,000.
Incarcerated for Fines
New Ways to Incarcerate for Standard Consumer Debt
More traditional consumer debt is not without peril of incarceration as well. Debt collectors and collection agencies often file lawsuits that at least require debtors to show up in court. Failing to show up, i.e. Failure to Appear, then is a crime which generates a warrant for that person's arrest.
View a story from the Star Tribune below:
Serving Time for Standard Consumer Debt
The Revolving Door to Jail
As if on the side of collection agencies, judges now commonly set bail of those arrested on warrents to the amount owed in court. The intent of bail is to insure persons show up in court and is not intended for private collection purposes as it appears to be a common practice nowadays.
When a court judgment is issued with debt collection payment terms, a citizen can thereafter be jailed not for debt, but for violating a court order. Again, taxpayers pay the high cost of incarcerating such citizens. Meanwhile the person incarcerated cannot leave jail to work, cannot work to pay their way out of jail and has “entered the Twilight Zone”, one could say! Failure to keep up with the payments will insure a repeat trip to jail.
Clearly, work needs to be done to extract the courts from putting debtors in Catch-22 positions as well as to extract courts and law enforcement from apparently acting as collectors.
To wrap up, common people are often surprised and dismayed that they can end up in prison or jail by owing fines, back child support, etc.
Such imprisonment hardly addresses the problem at hand which mainly happens when financial difficulties cause the levying of such fees. Ironically, by throwing people in such debtor's prisons, the person is less able than ever to find their way out of financial difficulties. Society suffers as a whole by making a productive person unable to work.