Debtors Locked Up in Prison for Being Poor. In the U.S.A.
If you ever read Dickens, you are probably familiar with debtors’ prisons. The idea is that if someone owes money they can’t pay, throw them in prison as punishment — making it certain that they won’t have the opportunity to come up with the money to pay their debt.
In a word, it’s idiotic.
Abolishing debtors’ prisons was a triumph of sanity and human rights.
So why am I writing about this long-abolished policy? Because it’s back, it’s right here in the U.S. of A., and it’s spreading. It’s in Ohio, it’s in Georgia, and it may be coming soon to a state near you.
Debtors’ prisons punish the poor for being poor. High rollers who owe platinum-sized debts don’t end up there. After all, that wouldn’t be seemly, now would it.
Some examples of the lunacy in Ohio from Think Progress:
- Jack Dawley owed $1500 to the municipal court in fines and costs, and was behind on child support payments. He was locked up for three and a half years. Seems unlikely that he was better able to take care of his kids financially from prison than he had been before.
- Tricia Metcalf, a single mother, got a trip to jail every time she couldn’t pay her monthly $50 fine for writing bad checks.
- Megan Sharp and her husband are both unemployed. Hubby is in jail for overdue fines. Megan couldn’t afford $300 worth of fines for driving on a suspended license and got ten days in jail. Now the couple owes $200 more than they originally did, with no more resources to pay it off than they had before.
- In the course of six weeks last summer, one municipal court jailed at least 45 people for not paying fines and costs.
- During the same period another municipal court threw 75 people in the slammer for the same reasons. That first court better ramp it up — just 30 more people and they could have had a tie.
Imprisoning people for owing money also punishes the state for being dumb as dirt. States usually pay more to keep the poor under lock and key than it would cost to pay off the debt. I’m not recommending that Ohio step in and pay the money prisoners owe, as that could create an incentive for people to incur debts they can’t pay.
I am recommending ending this stupid debt-leads-to-jail system. Folks, listen up: people tried this before and abolished it. They did that for a reason. Read some history, for crying out loud.
Locking people in prison is supposed to serve three purposes.
- Retribution: good old revenge. Better than a lynch mob or other vigilante justice.
- Rehabilitation: teach the offender not to break the law again and help him develop other options. Offering libraries and classes in prison furthers this goal.
- Deterrence: criminals can’t reoffend if they are sitting in a jail cell. This one is a little iffy given the amount of violence prisoners inflict on each other, but at least the rest of us are safe for the duration of the sentence.
So how does locking up poor debtors stack up against these goals?
- Retribution: not so great. When the money is owed to an institution like a court or a bank, as it often is, there really isn’t anyone thirsting for the bad guy’s blood. It’s not likely that there would be any vigilante justice here — just bureaucratic torture, which will happen regardless of a prison sentence.
- Rehabilitation: some prisons may offer the resources to help prisoners learn skills that will earn them money after their release. But sometimes even marketable skills aren’t enough to net a job, as so many laid-off people have learned in the last few years. Perhaps the big house will convince debtors to change their ways and pay what they owe, but that assumes they have the resources to do so.
- Deterrence: this is just silly. While debt dodgers languish in their cells, interest on debts accrues and child support payments pile up. This is not the way to prevent people who cannot pay from amassing more debts they cannot pay.
Are there people who have the money to pay what they owe and simply refuse to do so? Sure. But those types can afford good lawyers who keep them out of jail. The ones behind bars are the ones who just don’t have the money to buy their freedom.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio issued a report this month outlining why Ohio’s policy is inane and arguing that it also violates both the federal and state constitutions:
The U.S. Constitution, the Ohio Constitution, and Ohio Revised Code all prohibit debtors’ prisons. The law requires that, before jailing anyone for unpaid fines, courts must determine whether an individual is too poor to pay. Jailing a person who is unable to pay violates the law.
It also violates common sense. That can be a rare commodity in legislative debates, but one can always hope.
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