April 26, 2012

Soapbox time : Say NO to Debtors Prisons

The other day I read this article : Jailed for $280 : The Return of Debtors Prisons.   I encourage you to read the article yourself.   

The short version of the story is that while its illegal to put someone in jail for failing to pay a debt there are however a lot of cases now where people are put in jail because they failed to pay a debt.    Of course that makes no sense at all, but its basically what happens.   The article shares a story of a woman who got a $280 medical bill in error and was told she didn't have to pay it.   Then fast forward and a debt collector has gotten the local sheriffs office to haul the woman off to jail.   Of course that makes no sense because debtors prisons are illegal in the U.S.

What is really happening is that courts are fining and imprisoning people for legal actions related to the debt rather than the debt itself.  So you aren't going to jail because you failed to pay the $280 bill but you do go to jail because you failed to appear in court for a court hearing related to the $280 bill.    In effect the debt collectors can use the power of the courts and threat of jail to get people to pay the bills.    The article says that in Illinois it can be common for debt collectors to use the threat of the courts and jails to pressure people who owe even small debts.

Part of me says this is fair and that if you don't show up for a court date or ignore a judge order then there should be criminal consequences for that.    But really we're talking about a totally civil issue here, not a criminal issue.   I don't think we should be using our jails to punish people for ignoring a past due $150 cable bill.  

 The article also discusses people in jail because they can't pay fines related to criminal charges.   Thats  a different matter than simply failing to pay a debt, but it can also be a big problem.   One study on the matter relays this example :

"We also profile Gregory White, a homeless man who was arrested for stealing $39 worth of food from a local grocery store. He was assessed $339 in fines and fees, which were later converted into a community service sentence after he was jailed because he could not pay his fines. Mr. White spent a total of 198 days in jail because he was unable to pay his LFOs and could not afford the bus fare to complete his community service. In all, his incarceration cost the City over $3,500."

The city spent $3500 to put someone in jail for 198 days because they stole $39 in food and then couldn't pay a $339 fine.   Of course theft is wrong and homeless or poor people should not steal.    But if a  homeless person steals food then fining them isn't a very logical punishment.  If he could afford food in the first place, presumably he wouldn't be stealing it and clearly he wouldn't have the money for such a fine.   I don't think they should just ignore such crimes but there has to be a better solution.

Whether its a unpaid bill or a criminal fine, I don't think it makes much sense to throw people in jail for unpaid bills.   Debtors prisons are illegal in the US and so people really shouldn't be jailed for debts.   Thats my opinion.

What do you think?   Should courts jail people for debts?   

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