The return of debtor’s prisons in the U.S.

Debtor’s prisons were one of the more horrific institutions in the mid to late 17th century. The county poor farm was alive and well even into the 1930’s in some places. It’s disturbing to realize this can return even in a relatively small way.

The poorest and most disadvantaged are the ones that get caught up in this catch-22. You need to work to pay the debt but owing money to the court can cost you your drivers license and even public benefits. Some people can’t get the license or certification they need to work until the debt is cleared. It’s an insidious circle that accrues 12% interest in some places. Throwing the person deeper and deeper into debt even when payments are made.

Fundamentally, there are 2 main punishments- incarceration or fines. Clearly jail time is inappropriate in something like a misdemeanor assault charge, but somehow we’re supposed to feel sorry for people who incur fines because they broke the law and can’t pay their fines?

Would it have been better for her to have spent 4 days in jail, with the lost work, child care, etc…?

I don’t feel the least bit sorry for people who do stupid shit and are unprepared for, or can’t handle the consequences of their actions, poor, rich or otherwise.

Someone has had 7 years (84 months) to pay 500 for a criminal assault and they live their lives and graduate from college but can't set aside 10 a month to pay the fine?

Is this example designed to elicit sympathy because it’s failing.

<shrug> I just recoil at ever sending anyone to jail over a debt. It’s a violation of Federal law and the sordid history of debters prisons is so appalling. We studied that period in college and Dickens describes it in his books.

CBS published this article in April. I added italics to one sentence about Florida’s debt courts. There’s no right to a public defender. They are targeting the most vulnerable and impoverished people to squeeze money from. How can you ever repay a debt with a 40% surcharge? You’ll be shackled to debt payments for a long, long time.

So she attacks a co-worker, doesn’t pay her fines, and it’s the system’s fault that she can’t find a job? This woman doesn’t need debtor’s prison; she needs Stupid Prison.


People get locked up for contempt of court. Is that news?

We’re not sending her to jail for debt; we’re sending her to jail for failing to pay her fine which is the punishment ordered by the court. They’re not set with an eye to the convicted’s ability to pay.

And the example in the article is even more retarded. That guy racked up a huge number of DWI fines and traffic tickets, and we’re supposed to feel sorry when they eventually clap that dude in jail?

This isn’t debtor’s prison in the sense of anything Dickensian. Back then, you were liable to jail time for simply not paying common debts- like your car note, mortgage, credit cards, etc… This is failing to pay legally mandated penalties.

Monetary fines make no sense in a legal system except for as restitution. The same fine can be life destroying to one person and not cause another a second thought depending on their income. And they tend to have a corruptive effect on the courts and police. These should all be replaced with community service.

Which would also have different levels of impact on defendants. An unemployed defendant loses nothing but time. An employed defendant loses a paycheck, and possibly a job.

No sympathy. She is in jail for being violent, lazy and stupid.

She did this to herself.

It’s still vastly better than a monetary fine, both more equitable and also more flexible - you can serve at night or on weekends. and the point isn’t just punishment, it’s reformation and civic restitution. The fact that isn’t perfect is no reason not to have it replace something much worse. There may be a better alternative, if you have something in mind, I’d love to hear it.

Enter the day-fine which is based on the offender’s income.

In my state, those that are unable to pay the fine even on a payment plan are allowed to work it off. They report to a work center, and are assigned things like picking up trash, mowing grass on public land, washing police cars, etc. The downside is the work program costs the city/county more money to supervise the workers/administer the program than is saved by the “cheap labor”, particularly when some of the tasks are essentially “makework” type things. How many times does a squad car really need to be washed in a week? Etc.

If she’s been in terrible debt for 7 years, she probably shouldn’t have been making babies 2 years ago.

Don’t do the crime if you can’t pay the fine. Or you know, just don’t assault people at all.

Maybe pay your existing debts before racking up new ones? Maybe don’t go to school if you can’t afford it?

Then go work flipping burgers until your debt is paid. And what a worthwhile degree to have gone into further debt for. Just what the world needs, more fashion marketers…

Being poor and making very bad life choices shouldn’t be a get out of jail (or debt) free card.