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:
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.
So how does locking up poor debtors stack up against these goals?
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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