Civil Liberties Groups Say "Debtors Prison" Returning to US

Judges may not know its against the law to throw delinquents in jail


As if out of a Charles Dickens novel, people struggling to pay overdue fines and fees associated with court costs for even the simplest traffic infractions are being thrown in jail across the United States. 

Critics are calling the practice the new "debtors' prison"—referring to the jails that flourished in the U.S. and Western Europe over 150 years ago. Before the time of bankruptcy laws and social safety nets, poor folks and ruined business owners were locked up until their debts were paid off. 

Reforms eventually outlawed the practice. But groups like the Brennan Center for Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union say it's been reborn in local courts which may not be aware it's against the law to send indigent people to jail over unpaid fines and fees—or they just haven't been called on it until now. 

NEXT: Jailing Photogs and Smokers, Outlawing Chipotle! Plus Halle Berry! (Nanny of the Year, 2013)

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  1. We’ve had de facto debtors’ prisons for a few decades now, for men who can’t make court-ordered child support payments.

  2. The law is whatever a cop and a judge can get away with. Which is quite a damned lot! A sixteen year old rich kid gets drunk and mows down 4 people and cripples another and he get 10 years probation, to be expunged from his record if he doesn’t kill anyone else. An 18 year old girl has sex with her boyfriend who’s a day shy of his 18th birthday, and she’s off to jail and permanently branded as a sex criminal. Just call it prosecutor’s discretion and keep on movin’.

  3. Too bad the founders didn’t write some penalties into the Constitution to prosecute politicians/government officials when they break the law.

    1. They’d just decree an exemption.

  4. Some of the quotes in the debtor’s prison article are pretty astounding.

    We need to train judges to know what the law is? You mean to tell me that you can get to be a judge WITHOUT knowing anything about the law?!?

    Sending someone to prison for debt is already illegal, and that has been solidly-established law for longer than any current judge has been alive…so how can courts NOT know that?

    And that bit about saving jail beds for real criminals…does this mean they are locking people up without convicting them there? Do the local judges need involuntary psychological evaluations? What goes through their mind that they put NON-criminals in jail?

    1. Happens all the time. New York, for example, where you can be elected judge without any legal experience whatsoever.

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