Very seldom do liberals and conservatives agree on much of anything these days, but there is one area where we should have some common cause. Over at the liberal website Alternet, Bill Berkowitz has written a piece called, “Cruel Country: Debtors Prisons Are Punishing the Poor Across America”:
In the 1990s, Jack [Dawley’s] drug and alcohol addictions led to convictions for domestic violence and driving under the influence, resulting in nearly $1,500 in fines and costs in the Norwalk Municipal Court. Jack was also behind on his child support, which led to an out-of-state jail sentence.” After serving three and a half years in Wisconsin, Dawley, now sober for 14 years, is still trying to catch up with the fines he owes, and it has “continue[d] to wreak havoc on his life.”
…The jailing of people unable to pay fines and court costs is no longer a relic of the 19th century American judicial system. Debtors’ prisons are alive and well in one-third of the states in this country.
In 2011, Think Progress’ Marie Diamond wrote: “Federal imprisonment for unpaid debt has been illegal in the U.S. since 1833. It’s a practice people associate more with the age of Dickens than modern-day America. But as more Americans struggle to pay their bills in the wake of the recession, collection agencies are using harsher methods to get their money, ushering in the return of debtor’s prisons.”
…This year’s ACLU report….points out that many poor “Ohioans … convicted of a criminal or traffic offense and sentenced to pay a fine an affluent defendant may simply pay … and go on with his or her life [find the fine] unaffordable [launching] the beginning of a protracted process that may involve contempt charges, mounting fees, arrest warrants, and even jail time. The stark reality is that, in 2013, Ohioans are being repeatedly jailed simply for being too poor to pay fines.”
According to the report, Ohio courts in Huron, Cuyahoga, and Erie counties “are among the worst offenders. In the second half of 2012, over 20% of all bookings in the Huron County Jail were related to failure to pay fines.
…CBS Money Watch’s Alain Sherter recently reported that “Roughly a third of U.S. states today jail people for not paying off their debts, from court-related fines and fees to credit card and car loans, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Such practices contravene a 1983 United States Supreme Court ruling that they violate the Constitutions’ Equal Protection Clause.”
Wreaking havoc on ordinary peoples’ lives
Jack Dawley: “You’d go do your ten days, and they’d set you up a court date and give you another 90 days to pay or go back to jail… It was hard for me to obtain work, so I fell back into the cycle of going to jail every three months.”
Paying money to people you owe can’t just be an “optional” thing. The government must be allowed to force people to pay their debts or our entire system of commerce would break down. That being said, it’s immoral, unconstitutional and even counter-productive to put someone in jail for being truly unable to pay his debts. How are you going to earn enough to pay what you owe if you’re in jail?
Certainly, this isn’t always a clear cut issue. Is a person REALLY unable to pay or is he just irresponsible? Is he pleading poverty when it comes time to pay off his bills and then going out and spending the money on booze and a new iPhone?
Yet, there’s a reason Lady Justice is portrayed as a blindfolded woman holding a pair of scales. We always have to balance interests; putting someone in jail for being genuinely unable to pay a bill tilts the scales too far in one direction. Given what’s going on in Ohio, we need to take a hard look at those scales to make sure that we’re not going back to the bad old days of debtors prisons.