Debtors Prisons Are Taking the US Back to the 19th Century


Most countries around the world have confined debtors’ prisons the annals of history. Indigent debtors can, however, still be locked away in the United Arab Emirates, Greece and, to (what should be) our shame, the United States.

The US did away with designated facilities for jailing debtors in the 19th century. But the system of imprisoning the poor for their failure to pay legal fees persists, feeding the glutted incarceration system.

The 14th Amendment holds that it is unconstitutional to imprison individuals for debts they can’t pay (there is a caveat for willful debt refusal) but, as the ACLU noted in 2012, the incarceration of debtors has become “a growing problem nationwide.” The problem lies in the legal small print — judges are left to decide what might constitute a “willful” failure to pay a debt, and across the country individuals too poor to pay fines are being punished as “willful” defaulters.

As NPR reported in May: “Some judges will tell an offender to give up their phone service, or quit smoking cigarettes — and use the money instead to pay court debt.” It is unabashed discrimination against America’s poor.

In 15 states, including Minnesota, Arkansas, Washington, and Arizona, we have seen a significant uptick in arrest warrants for debtors, relating to debts originally owed to private firms. However, there are no national statistics about the proliferation of debtor imprisonments. Yet a spread of anecdotes, followed by civil liberties groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the ACLU, point to a trend now firmly established in US so-called justice.

The pattern that leads an indigent debtor is as follows: It starts with basic debt, including credit card, medical, unpaid rent, and a host of unpaid fees to private firms. Debts become fines when collectors take debtors to civil court and from there, court fees are accrued. These court fees, if unpaid, can become grounds for incarceration.

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