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World Association of International Studies

Post No Debtors' Prisons in the US
Created by John Eipper on 02/23/18 3:28 PM

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No Debtors' Prisons in the US (David Duggan, USA, 02/23/18 3:28 pm)

In response to Eugenio Battaglia (23 February), there are no debtors' prisons in the United States.

The only possibility of imprisonment for failure to pay a debt is for contumacious failure to pay child support, or a fine or court fees and costs when the failure to pay is willful and there is evidence of an ability to pay--i.e., tattoos, NFL jackets.

JE comments:  Do debtors' prisons exist in any nation?  Here's a recent Atlantic piece that describes them here and now.  (Specifically in this case, it refers to people being jailed for failing to pay parking tickets and related fines.)


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  • Debtors' Prisons in the US? (Paul Pitlick, USA 02/24/18 2:03 PM)

    I'm not a lawyer, and have no particular expertise on this subject. No doubt "debtors' prison" has a specific legal meaning, and I certainly know better than to argue with David Duggan (February 23rd) on legal matters. However, there are well-documented abuses of jail time in the way some debtors are treated in places in the US (especially in the South, directed towards persons of color).

    The Atlantic article John forwarded cited the report "Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department by the US Department of Justice."  (https://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/opa/press-releases/attachments/2015/03/04/ferguson_police_department_report.pdf )

    The report contains several examples of court practices and jail time related to debts arising from citations for minor problems, compounded by inability to pay the fines, resulting in additional fines, and eventually jail. See examples on page 42.

    A way the private sector can profit from the abuse was documented in the New Yorker, "Get Out of Jail, Inc." in the June 23, 2014 issue. It starts with a woman who had received a number of traffic tickets, which she was unable to pay. "By that summer her total court costs and fines had soared from hundreds of dollars incurred by the initial tickets to $4,713, including more than a thousand dollars in private-probation fees."

    In her town, Montgomery, Alabama, the jail was run by a private company. The "beauty" of that arrangement is described thus: 

    "In return for an exclusive contract with a municipality, companies like Freedom Probation offer their services to courts for free. The industry aims to shift the financial burden of probation directly onto probationers. Often, this means charging petty offenders--such as those with traffic debts--for a government service that was once provided for free. These probationers aren't just paying a court-ordered fine; they're typically paying an ever-growing share of the court's administrative expenses, as well as a separate fee to the for-profit company that supervises their probation and enforces a payment schedule--a consolidated weekly or monthly set of charges divided between the court and the company."

    JE comments:  Wow.  Debtors' prisons versus prison for debtors--is there really a difference?  And then, to complete the cycle, the debtors can be sent to a for-profit prison.

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