De Facto ‘Debtors’ Prison’ Freezes Economic Mobility, Favors Plutocrats In Eroding U.S. Legal System

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Drawing a direct line — or any line at all — that links criminal guilt with incarceration is becoming impossible in a growing number of cities and States, as people are being put indefinitely in jail for their inability to pay medical bills, traffic fines and court costs.

Since 1833, it’s been illegal at the Federal level to imprison someone for unpaid debt. But individual States still retain the legal prerogative to do just that, and one-third of them still do.

Increasingly, private debt collection has come to put pressure on law enforcement to aggressively pursue available legal opportunities to arrest those who don’t pay their bills — such as when a civil judgment has been issued against an already-delinquent borrower and that person subsequently is found to be in contempt of the judgment because he still can’t pay.

Contempt, failing to respond at court hearings and failing to pay court costs (which mount over time) are all used as legal justifications for jailing someone who originally came before the law in a civil capacity because he couldn’t pay a debt.

An Illinois woman was billed $280, in error, for medical services. She inquired about the error and was told she wouldn’t, of course, have to pay it. But the bill went into collections, and State police eventually showed up at her house. They arrested her.

In Missouri, when creditors win civil judgments against borrowers who can’t pay, they wait for the borrower’s “examination” summons, a post-judgment court date to review a borrower’s financial assets. If the borrower doesn’t appear, the creditor asks the court for a “body attachment,” which is essentially an arrest warrant. Once arrested, the borrower is indefinitely held in jail pending a bond payment that’s set at — guess how much — the amount he owes the creditor (plus court costs).

Without question, lenders who have been defrauded by borrowers have every reason to demand full recourse for recovering what’s owed them under the law. But the spirit of civil law governing economic transactions in the United States holds that both parties are equally exposed to the risks attending any exchange of money for product.

Lenders who collude with local law enforcement and courts to jail debtors are exposing their former customers to more than just the civil consequences of dealing in bad faith; they’re taking away individual liberties. Now switch that antagonism around: If the lenders were the ones defrauding the borrowers, how often would the borrowers’ legal recourse extend all the way to the criminal courts?

Putting someone in jail — not to serve out a sentence handed down for a criminal conviction, but for lacking money owed to another entity (either to creditors or, increasingly, to the state) — is to recreate the debtors’ prison in America, a Nation whose brief, tumultuous experiment with the concept was rejected as vestigial of the old-world European classism the Founders had striven to abolish.

America’s Founders adamantly despised the idea of debtors’ prisons (many served time in them) not only for its cruelty, but also for its ossification of the poor classes. To be put in jail for lack of funds is to be frozen in society with no hope of rising, on one’s own merits and ambitions, to the middle or upper class.

More egregious is the practice of governments throwing people in jail for being unable to pay the government. An Ohio man ended up sitting in jail for 10 days last year because he couldn’t pay the balance on an outstanding $900 in costs owed to the municipal court of the Town of Norwalk. In other words, the court converted the fine he couldn’t pay into jail time, despite a 1971 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found that very practice unConstitutional.

There’s some hope that higher courts will end that kind of state profiteering. An Alabama judge put the hammer down on the town of Harpersville last year, calling a traffic-ticketing scheme involving police, city officials and a private probation company a “judicially sanctioned extortion racket.”

That case involved four people who sued the city for violating their Constitutional rights. If people ticketed for speeding there were not immediately able to fines imposed by the municipal court, they were referred to the private company, which instantly began tacking on additional fees that multiplied the cost of the original offense — all under the sanction of criminal law. Many were jailed on bogus failure to appear charges, and every interaction with the town’s legal system cost them more money.

Shelby County Circuit Judge Hub Harrington heard the case, and he said this in his order:

When viewed in a light most favorable to Defendants, their testimony concerning the City’s court system could reasonably be characterized as the operation of a debtors prison. The court notes that these generally fell into disfavor by the early 1800’s, though the practice appears to have remained common place in Harpersville. From a fair reading of the defendants’ testimony one might ascertain that a more apt description of the Harpersville Municipal Court practices is that of a judicially sanctioned extortion racket. Most distressing is that these abuses have been perpetrated by what is supposed to be a court of law. Disgraceful.

The judge went on to order the mayor and every city council member to attend a scheduled hearing — and every possible subsequent hearing that might arise in disposing the case:

These individuals, who are the officials ultimately responsible for the operation of the City, may wish to consult with Mr. [Larry] Ward [the town’s municipal judge alleged to have been involved in the scheme] regarding the consequences of one’s failure to appear, especially when actually ordered by a court to do so.

Amen. At every level of the court system in the United States, we need more judges like that.

Ben Bullard

Reconciling the concept of individual sovereignty with conscientious participation in the modern American political process is a continuing preoccupation for staff writer Ben Bullard. A former community newspaper writer, Bullard has closely observed the manner in which well-meaning small-town politicians and policy makers often accept, unthinkingly, their increasingly marginal role in shaping the quality of their own lives, as well as those of the people whom they serve. He argues that American public policy is plagued by inscrutable and corrupt motives on a national scale, a fundamental problem which individuals, families and communities must strive to solve. This, he argues, can be achieved only as Americans rediscover the principal role each citizen plays in enriching the welfare of our Republic.

  • vicki

    One thing I could never understand about debtors prison is “why”? If they are in prison they can’t make money to pay their debt.

    • Right Brain Thinker

      Could it be that they are being used as examples of “what will happen to you”—-to scare and to shame people?

      Could it be so that their assets can be plundered while they are in jail?

      In the old days, debtors were sometimes “sold into slavery” to their creditors—-a form of feudalism. Considering the privatization of the prison system in places like Ohio (where many of the abuses are alleged to have occurred), it looks like it’s just a move by the plutocracy to have more serfs in their prisons earning them some money.

    • john borhman

      there is no point of it thats why its illegal in the United States

  • bryan

    What’s next? …having to pay for the time spent in prison then pay the debt you owe??!!

    • Ringgo1

      Pay the court that puts you in prison, then pay the prison in which you were put, THEN pay the debt you owe…

    • Tom ex-felon

      In Idaho, I’ve heard of them charging people at their work release centers $20 a day. I have never been to a work release center so I don’t know first hand, but that’s what I’ve heard.

    • Chester

      Bryan, that is already taking place in a large number of county courts, and at the state level if you have sufficient assets for them to attach or outright seize.

  • devildog

    OBAMA CARE IS JUST SUCH A DEBTORS PRISON – Insurance companies are allowed to take money every month from your income – enforced by the IRS with powers that allow seizure of all assets and criminal prosecution and least anyone catch on we are taking the guns away just a quick as we can. The Government targets not just felons or licensed marijuana users but any address or household where ther is a marijuana user or previously convicted felon. Americans need to read history and know that up until 1979 a person freed after serving their time felon or not was entitled to all their rights back including the owning of a gun.

    • Arkansas Girl

      I always thought that it was crazy that once a felon had turned their life around and proved
      to be a good citizen that they should not continue to be followed around with thier past.

      Even Obama admitted he smoked dope at one time and so did Clinton
      (though he claimed he did not inhale…LOL). But thier past did not stop them from being
      Presidents.

      But a Felon who has paid his debt will never be able to get a job that requires a background check,
      or do much more than wait on tables or wash dishes. But here is the catch for a felon, by law they
      are required to be gainfully employed at all times but nobody will hire them…What are they to do….

      My Late husband opened a Steel Fabrication Shop in our area and made sure to hire as many felons
      as possible so that they had a real chance to improve their lives..God rest his soul, he thought our
      laws were nuts.

      • Jimmy the Greek

        You husband did the right thing !

      • independent thinker


        I always thought that it was crazy that once a felon had turned their life around and proved
        to be a good citizen that they should not continue to be followed around with thier past.”
        In some states it is possible to get your conviction expunged (I think that is the correct term) after you have served your sentence. From what I have heard of the process it is not easy nor is a favorable outcome guarenteed but it can be done.

      • Tom ex-felon

        God Bless Your Husband! I’m sure he’s in heaven with Jesus now. May the example he set spread to other business owners. God bless you for sharing this, it has given me hope for my future. I am an ex-felon, who is looking for work now. I pray I find an employer like your husband was.

      • gayle osborn

        God Bless your husband

      • john borhman

        im sorry but I dont believe your story, most felons are felons for a reason and will commit the same crimes over and over again, very very few dont. statistics dont lie.

    • john borhman

      get the helll over it , no its not. the penalty of not having insurance is 50 dollars tax bill and if you cant afford it you dont have to pay it and you get medicaid just like you do today, no one goes to jail over it.

  • Jimmy the Greek

    Ten days for $900.00 that is not bad , could he have made $900.00 in that time ? i know a lot of people here in Texas that would sit out the fine before paying it , hell that way it coust them to keep you and they still don’t get the fine money . LOL

    • john borhman

      they still have to pay the 900 dollars right ?

      • Jimmy the Greek

        No most county give $150.00 off the fine for each day you sit in there jail plus they got to feed you lol

  • Right Brain Thinker

    Some interesting anecdotal “evidence” about a few cases but no real statistics about how “big” a problem this really is in the country.

    De Facto ‘Debtors’ Prison’ Freezes Economic Mobility, Favors Plutocrats In Eroding U.S. Legal System

    WOW! That is certainly an eye-catching “headline” with lots of “hot buttons” being pushed (at least half a dozen—very good), but the article has no “meat”—where’s the beef?

    • Chester

      This is one where a little research will get you all the meat and potatoes you can handle.

      • Right Brain Thinker

        Yeah, there is no doubt that some “dirty business” is going on, but I just can’t get very excited over it while all the Wall Street crooks continue to evade prosecution and make puny “settlements” with the government—-you know, get fined maybe 1/2 cent on the dollar for the damage they did and that “admit no wrongdoing, but agree not to do it again (until next time)” BS. That’s the “elephantburger” on the menu.

        I am always being accused of being an “O”Bama Worshipper” by the ignorant on PLD, but he and his Justice Department have failed the country badly by not going after all the crooks that nearly destroyed the country AND not vigorously pushing Dood-Frank and the CFPA. The fools that are always ranting about guns and gay marriage and immigration need to look there instead for things to “pin” on O’Bama.

  • Laidbackrebel

    I just hope I have enough warning to keep them from taking me alive.

  • empty pockets

    Government sanctioned extortion has been going on for decades. Its reps are often called “lobbyists” but not always. Though there needs to be recourse for collection of legal debts, legally and ethically created, jailing someone–in essence, holding them hostage–is not in the spirit of our Constitutional Republic’s founding. Of course, lots of other even more egregious infractions of our Constitution are rampant.
    Still, this one seems like an easy winner for the adherants of justice and truth. Hey…even the ACLU ought to join in on this! They may choke and gag a bit to see the company they’d be keeping, but it is right up their alley.

  • empty pockets

    Government sanctioned extortion has been going on for decades. Its reps are often called “lobbyists” but not always. Though there needs to be recourse for collection of legal debts, legally and ethically created, jailing someone–in essence, holding them hostage–is not in the spirit of our Constitutional Republic’s founding. Of course, lots of other even more egregious infractions of our Constitution are rampant.
    Still, this one seems like an easy winner for the adherants of justice and truth. Hey…even the ACLU ought to join in on this! They may choke and gag a bit to see the company they’d be keeping, but it is right up their alley.

  • Mr Diesel

    Extortion. Bennettsvile, SC. If you get a speeding ticket in one of their traps they give you a ticket and an option to make it go away if you just pay them $200 and sign a document pleading guilty to reckless operation. I have the paper and the ticket over the visor of my car right now. I just paid the $87 ticket.

  • 010sonny

    Ben has exposed how our Justice system is in desperate need of reform. When Wall Street with an open contemptuous assault on our Main Street financial security. They produced the debt that can not be paid and gather up values of the citizens of Maun Street to reward their failures and demand additional privileges. Justice is hog tied when it comes to hold these finical hooligans responsible. Senator Elizabeth Warren seeking to hold these outlaws accountable is haggled at every turn and not one haggle for the finically unemployed desperate Main Street citizen.
    Equal in the eyes of the law has lost its fragrance as we observe a law for Wall Street and another for Main Street.. Predatory Justice. Bought and paid for… Inequality in the distributions of our Main Street productivity. Assimilating to a minority to be taken out of circulation with but a small percentage returned in investments for the productivity of Main Street to survive on. Little wonder in the worlds eye our once proud capitalism is now 37th . Demoted from our #1 throne.

  • Terry Bateman

    If the government jails citizens for not living within their means, it then
    follows that congressmen and presidents can be jailed for passing
    federal budgets beyond the federal government’s means.

    • momo

      Then you would have prison overflow, not a bad idea.

  • Preston Weiters Jr.

    4//9/13, Remember, Man’s natural default mode is tyranny; a well-oiled Republic doesn’t run by itself, as we’re seeing today.