Our Modern-Day Debtor’s Prisons 

See if you can find the logic in this. A local government issues traffic fines to residents for infractions like not wearing a seat belt, expired registration tags or a broken taillight. If the fine isn’t promptly paid then interest and penalties pile up and soon a $50 or $100 ticket can quickly balloon to many thousands of dollars.

If a person cannot afford to promptly pay the full ticket what sense does it make to keep piling on extra monetary demands?

It happened to Leah Jackson in Otsego, Minnesota. She was ticketed for obstructing traffic and fined $135. She had just gotten a new job but no paycheck. Immersed in her new position she inadvertently forgot about the ticket.  Unbeknownst to Jackson the city suspended her driver’s license, but she had to drive as part of her job. She then got three $200 tickets for driving without a license. Over time, and overwhelmed with the financial burden, Jackson’s fines and penalties rose to a grand total of $13,000.

Crushing Debt Can Start With a Traffic Ticket – wiki commons

It’s not just traffic offenses that can bury a citizen for non-payment.  In Texas, an open-heart surgery patient was confronted by U.S. Marshals over an old $2,500 student loan debt that had grown to $12,000. He was arrested for failure to appear at a court hearing that took place, without his knowledge, during his recovery.  A woman in Alabama was put in jail after she missed a court date about her unpaid utility bill.  In Oregon, heavy fines are levied against parents of kids who play hooky from school.  Non-payment of the fine means potential time behind bars.

Does it make sense to punish someone who owes a debt by putting them in jail? They can’t earn money to pay bills if they are locked up. And, aren’t jails already full enough?  The same argument could also be used in those jurisdictions that use indebtedness to suspend driver’s licenses or seize the vehicles of those who owe past due bills. How can someone get to-and-from work to repay what they owe if they don’t have transportation?

Here’s a sobering statistic. The Federal Reserve Board estimates that 40% of Americans don’t have enough cash in the bank to cover an emergency expense of $400.  A hefty traffic ticket plus, say, an unusually high utility bill in the same month could put a person in a terrible downward slide.

This idea of criminalizing debt – especially among those least able to pay – is pushed by zealous bill collectors who partner with amenable city officials.  Prosecutors have allowed bill collection companies to use their official letterhead when sending out past due warning letters. Judges have been known to issue arrest warrants for overdue bills as low as $28.  In a report from the American Civil Liberties Union entitled, “Pound of Flesh” it is estimated that, “Tens of thousands of these warrants are issued annually, but the total number is unknown because states and local courts do not typically track these orders.” Judges usually set bail for the exact amount the debtor owes to the bill collector, often adding hefty court costs on top of that.

It is increasingly clear that municipalities are relying on these fines to help balance their budgets.  Rather than work out some sort of repayment plan with the offender, or require days of community service in return for the debt, cities and towns continue to try to squeeze those least able to pay. The hope, I suppose, is that a relative or benevolent friend will open their wallet and come to the rescue.  If that doesn’t happen and the person is jailed, well, the state subsidizes the cost of incarceration.

Debtor’s Prison – An Archaic Idea That Should End

Congress abolished Debtors Prisons in 1833  The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on three different occasions that it is unconstitutional to imprison citizens who are too poor to repay debt.  The High Court said judges must take time to distinguish between those who are clearly without means from those who have the financial ability to pay but are “willfully” ignoring their responsibility. And just a few months ago, in a rare unanimous ruling, the Supreme Court Justices invoked the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on “excessive fines” and ruled that states and localities cannot impose excessive fees, fines and forfeitures as criminal penalties.

Laws are designed to control public conduct so that everyone is kept safe. That is completely understandable.  Scofflaws should never be tolerated and when they are discovered they should be punished. But common sense should prevail in cases where indigent people simply cannot immediately pay a debt.  Tainting a poor person with an arrest and imprisonment record helps absolutely no one. Alternative ways for offenders to work off their debt to the community are out there.  Let’s find programs that can both benefit society and help the least fortunate maintain their dignity while they pay off their debt.




  1. Diane Dimond on June 18, 2019 at 2:17 pm

    Reader William Drummond writes:

    “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?”
    E. Scrooge.

  2. Diane Dimond on June 18, 2019 at 2:17 pm

    Reader Joanna Barouch replies to William Drummond:

    That’s exactly the phrase that went through my mind.

  3. Diane Dimond on June 18, 2019 at 2:18 pm

    Reader Steve Weinberg writes:

    Lots of judges are monsters, and others just aren’t very intelligent

  4. Diane Dimond on June 18, 2019 at 2:18 pm

    Reader Donald Shaffer writes:

    One of the uglier aspects of the new Gilded Age. As a professional historian I can tell you the historic purpose of debtors prison was to force families to surrender hidden assets or pay off the debts of the incarcerated relative to avoid family shame. It was never very good at either purpose. It is a pity some localities essentially are bringing it back. But some creditors can never give up on the idea if they squeeze harder they will force the debtor to cough up the money owed, especially in they can get the legal system to play the heavy.

  5. Diane Dimond on June 18, 2019 at 2:18 pm

    Reader Barbara Jane Sowak writes:

    Indeed, how can they pay, Diane?

  6. Diane Dimond on June 18, 2019 at 2:19 pm

    Reader (and retired Judge) Anne Kass writes:

    I suggest that if you studied the cases where judges sent someone to jail for failing to pay a debt, you would find, technically, the jail sentence is for failure to obey a court order to pay a debt, aka contempt of court. That’s how non-payment of court ordered child support has functioned for decades. The practice created something called a “dead beat dad.” There are actual parents, mostly fathers, who refuse to pay child support even though they are perfectly capable to doing so, but choose not to. There are also million of parents, mostly fathers, who don’t pay the court ordered child support because they don’t have the money. Those people get jailed for “failing to obey a court order” aka “contempt of court.” Too many judges fail to conduct meaningful evidentiary hearings to determine whether the parent actually had the ability to comply with the court order. It’s similar to setting bail then keeping people in jail who can’t afford to pay the bail, another form of “debtor’s prison.”

    • Diane Dimond on June 18, 2019 at 2:19 pm

      DD replies:

      Yes, Your Honor, many of those debtors sent to jail were sent for failure to appear for a hearing (that they maintain they knew nothing about) or contempt of court (for the original sin of failing to pay their debt.) The legalistic loophole used was not my focus … rather, the simple fact that the U.S. seems to be back on track to re-establishment of banned debtor’s imprisonment.

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