• U.S. States Revive Debtors’ Prisons

    July 31, 2014

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    Posted in: #99Percent

    A sordid feature of 19th century Victorian life was the debtor’s prison.

    People who could not pay their financial debt simply went to prison, punishment for not being wealthy. The point was often muddied, as from inside jail a person could most certainly not earn any money to pay off the debt, though one supposes the rich chortled knowing those who stiffed them suffered for the act. It was kind of a thing to do back then. The prisons, chronicled most famously by Charles Dickens among other Victorian crimes against a just society, were a step from Roman and Greek days when debtors could become the actual bonded slaves of the people to whom they owed money.

    Debtor’s prisons were from Colonial days through the early 1800s a feature of American life, until enlightened societal views (yeah, slavery took a bit longer to sort out) and new bankruptcy laws pushed them from the scene. State-by-state the practice of locking people up to punish them for owing money generally faded; Kentucky did away with it in 1821, still-business friendly Virginia dragged its feet until 1849. Between 1970 and 1982, in a series of cases, the Supremes did away with the practice once and for all as a violation of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. Until now of course.

    Until Now of Course

    More and more states have revived the debtors prison, albeit in a specific form, locking people up for failure to pay court costs and fees. Like so many other things in America, shortfalls in budgets are made up not by raising taxes (or heaven forbid, fiscal prudence) but by new arrays of costs and fees paid by people in the criminal justice system. We are not referring to fine or penalty (ex. speeding ticket=$250) here, but to that thing the judges say on TV– “Guilty, with a fine of $300 and court costs. Next case please.”

    The new costs can be dizzying. The Brennan Center at New York University reports:

    Some jurisdictions have haphazardly created an interlocking system of fees that can combine to create insurmountable debt burdens. Florida has added more than 20 new fees since 1996. In 2009, the Council of State Governments Justice Center found that a “sprawling number of state and local fees and court costs that state law prescribes as a result of a criminal conviction amounts to a nearly incomprehensible package. In 2009, North Carolina instituted late fees for failure to pay a fine, and added a surcharge for being placed on a payment plan. Jurisdictions in at least nine states charge people extra fees for entering into payment plans, which are purportedly designed to make payments easier.

    The Problem(s)

    Leaving aside the not insignificant question of the morality of imprisoning people for debt (an issue that was supposedly resolved years ago), we note that no country incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than the United States. At 716 per 100,000 people, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies, the U.S. tops every other nation in the world (insert “American Exceptionalism” comment). The United States has about five percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Prisons are already overcrowded in most places, so on the face, creating new reasons to put people in jail seems a bad idea.

    Of course the idea of debtor’s prison also impacts more exactly the people who need more impacting less, the poor. People with money pay the fees and go home. People without money go to jail. In hard-hit Huron County, Ohio in 2012, twenty percent of all arrests were for failure to pay fines. By coincidence, Huron County has a poverty rate above twenty-six percent.

    But Shouldn’t People Pay Their Debts?

    The governments’ case is as predicted. “When, and only when, an individual is convicted of a crime, there are required fees and court costs,” said Pamela Dembe, of the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania. “If the defendant doesn’t pay, law-abiding taxpayers must pay these costs.”

    She’s right of course. When people don’t pay their fees and court costs, it is indeed the taxpayer who ends up paying. But not in the way you might think. Locking up debtors costs money. The U.S. as a whole spends some $39 billion a year on locking people up. There are also incalculable collateral costs, such as families left without a parent. But really, it is about money. The costs to states of locking people up are significant– it costs an average of about $47,000 per year to incarcerate someone in California.

    Now sure, Charlie Manson in Super Max and Poor Old Joe in the county lockup do not cost the same, but then again, logic isn’t always the winner: The Brennan Center reports that there are inmates in Pennsylvania who are eligible for release but are kept in prison based on their inability to pay a $60 fee. The daily cost of confinement is nearly $100 per day. In 2009, Mecklenburg County, North Carolina jailed 246 debtors who did not pay for an average of four days. The county collected $33,476 while the jail terms cost $40,000 — a loss for the county.

    Stop Making Sense

    So we are left with the question of why. Debtors’ prisons in the U.S. were declared unconstitutional, but states have re-implemented them anyway. A person locked up can’t earn money to pay the debt. And most significantly, it ends up costing many jurisdictions more money to punish someone for not paying than they would have “spent” just forgetting the debt. So why do states do this? To be fair, many states do not, and some that do often try and work out some sort of payment plan first. OK, good enough.

    Now this may all be for the best. On the streets, nobody is overly concerned about providing food, medical care and shelter to poor people; outside they’re lazy, don’t want to work, nip at the public tit and all. Why, it would be socialism to help them after all. However, inside the prison system they all get food, medical and dental care, all tucked in a warm bed. Our society is apparently more ready to care for a criminal than for a citizen down on his luck.

    The reality in America is that far too many people go to jail as punishment for not paying the fees and court costs incurred finding them already guilty of something else. One is left with a tough conclusion: we are more and more a crude, course society on path towards some sort of feudalism, where the rich (if ever brought to court at all) pay their money and walk out, while poor people are punished for no valid reason. We as a society want to set examples, clear the streets of our lowers, punish those who aren’t able to pay the government for giving them their day in court. That’s who we are now. And you better pay your bills.

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  • Recent Comments

    • pitchfork said...


      quote” Between 1970 and 1982, in a series of cases, the Supremes did away with the practice once and for all as a violation of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. Until now of course.”unquote

      Until now?????? wait..wait..ummm, with all due respect Peter.. I hate to be a bearer of behind the eightball bad news, but, dude.. in light of ……..

      If that ain’t enough…look at all these..


      I’ve commented umpteen times here, on the corrupt child support system. In fact..it is beyond corrupt. It is murderously criminal. However..

      Child support debtor prisons have been here ever since Hillary Clinton authored the Federal “child support policy guidelines” while Bill was in the Whitehouse. I won’t bother linking to that story. Needless to say, as a “feminine rights” cunt, she literally cut the balls off fathers who get behind the child support eightball. I know personally. I was threatened with imprisonment at least 20 times. In fact, this was EXACTLY the reason I began my 10 journey into researching “corruption” in the child support system..which led me over time…to your site. After all, corruption and government criminality isn’t exclusively in the domain of the Child Support Cabal. And I do mean Cabal. After all, were talking NATION WIDE CORRUPTION.

      Can you say Golden Goose? These scumbags have literally murdered people who were stupid enough to think they could pin these motherfucking criminals to the wall. I was lucky. I got out alive..only because my attorney advised me to the depth these scumbags would go to keep me from bringing in evidence into court of their criminality. In the early days of my research, I found a case of one guy who challenged the Los Angeles county DA. They killed him. The website was started by his brother, and had over 20 pages of evidence. It disappeared within 6 months. Even the Judges are involved. Sometimes asymmetrically though..


      Did I mention criminally stupid?
      But nuff said about that.

      So no Peter, debtor prisons aren’t a newly reinstated practice. Other courts just learned from the Master…the Child Support system. And then..there’s the connection to Private Prison industry. But that’s another story for another day.

      07/31/14 1:03 PM | Comment Link

    • pitchfork said...


      pitchfork said:
      ” After all, corruption and government criminality isn’t exclusively in the domain of the Child Support Cabal.”unquote

      Speaking of which, on a DOS side note Peter, yesterday Marci Wheeler posted an article you need to look into. Perhaps you are already aware of it, but man, this is some mindboggling SHIT..


      In fact..she might even be pre-emptying you. 🙂


      just kidding, but still..

      07/31/14 1:13 PM | Comment Link

    • wemeantwell said...


      There is no way any one can do better at all this than Marcy Wheeler. She is amazing. Though we have never met in person, she has more than once privately corrected or educated me about something I’ve written. I consider her a national treasure.

      The key issue here is that Powell was kept in the dark. The ambassadors briefed overseas would realistically assume their boss in DC had already been briefed and would not see it as their job to pass things on. It is also unlikely that the ambassadors would be tasked with “asking” the host government if it was OK to open a torture site. Those discussions would likely be done by the CIA directly with the host country secret police, and State only informed at some later date after the deal had been done. State actually prefers that, keeps one’s hands clean and all that.

      07/31/14 1:27 PM | Comment Link

    • pitchfork said...


      ummm, holy jeebus..

      Sorry for the O/T, but seriously..


      07/31/14 1:20 PM | Comment Link

    • pitchfork said...


      quote”Those discussions would likely be done by the CIA directly with the host country secret police, and State only informed at some later date after the deal had been done.”unquote

      Hey Peter, thanks so much for getting back to me.
      Ya know, the more I find out, notwithstanding your opinion here that CIA “most likely” deals with the host country secret police ON THEIR OWN, which really says that these scumbags operate outside of their governments knowlege, leads me more and more to believe in Jim Garrisons assessment of CIA’s role as OUR GOVERNMENT..aka..ie..coup d’etat. Furthermore, in light of the fact that the Senate was FORCED(by Obama) to hand over the Senate Torture report to CIA for.. ahem…”review”.. aka..damage control REDACTION(which is unbelievable in itself), notwithstanding Marcy’s comment about “Maria Harf”(moving from CIA to State), I’m more convinced than ever.. especially when you say this..

      quote”State actually prefers that, keeps one’s hands clean and all that.”unquote

      Hand’s clean? They’re the State Department for gods sake!(rolling eyes here) Isn’t THAT their job???? nevermind..don’t answer that. I’m in overload mode already..(sheeezus..debtors prison..child support..Kerry..State..torture..reports..fuck)

      bartender.. considering you work for the CIA..er..umm..nevermind. Give me a double Jameson…and turn on the weather channel. I need to see which way the wind is blowing.

      07/31/14 2:41 PM | Comment Link

    • pitchfork said...


      Wait..wait..before I drink my Jamesons, something just occurred to me, …

      If the statement..”Those discussions would likely be done by the CIA directly with the host country secret police, and State only informed at some later date after the deal had been done”..is true, then this means either ONE of TWO things.

      One, the CIA was operating on orders from the Executive Branch…

      or Two..the CIA is a totally rogue agency, operating on it’s own initiative outside the boundary’s of it’s mandated legal authority.

      Either way, someones goose is cooked..as that PDF is LIVING PROOF that torture unequivocally took place. All that’s left is..who is going to be left holding the bag..either figuratively speaking, or by prosecution. ONE OR THE OTHER.

      At least in my universe. All else is proof this country is done.

      07/31/14 3:02 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      If poor people can go to prison for not paying their debts, then Congress should get the death penalty.

      07/31/14 7:01 PM | Comment Link

    • pitchfork said...


      Holy mother of breaking news.. I must be dreaming.


      Even in a world where real time has now become SOP, the speed at which stories travel absolutely amazes me.

      And then there’s Wydens press release after…


      And his tweet which generated
      comments which are hilarious but dead on.


      bartender..a toast. Here’s to the speed of light.

      07/31/14 7:13 PM | Comment Link

    • pitchfork said...


      Rich said:”If poor people can go to prison for not paying their debts, then Congress should get the death penalty.”unquote

      If I were on twitter, I’d retweet this. @Congress

      07/31/14 7:15 PM | Comment Link

    • pitchfork said...


      oops…meant.. #hangtogether. @Framersquotes


      07/31/14 7:17 PM | Comment Link

    • pitchfork said...


      Meanwhile, the echos of server pings from continent to continent slow down my access to WMW, while NSA’s 702 sucks it up at 40 fiber optic points across the planet .

      Oh well. Fuck you NSA.

      07/31/14 10:28 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      “Holy mother of breaking news. I must be dreaming.”

      Me too. After the CIA WMD lies, why would anyone trust a word the lying CIA says? The CIA’s excuse – that the spying was done in “good faith” – misses the point. The American public has no reason to have faith in anything the CIA says or does. It’s time to run this carney show out of town. Centralizing our “intelligence” only makes it easier to control the truth.

      “To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.”

      08/1/14 10:47 AM | Comment Link

    • pitchfork said...


      Rich..me and you, notwithstanding half the planet, know this torture debacle, and it’s resolution, will define what America really is. Not that we don’t already know. But to the DCOTP, they want some reassurance that American “exceptunalism” and it’s mythical “values” are alive and well, and the outcome from this report is the entire reason for it’s existence. Legal accountability aside, the entire edifice of America’s so called “moral standing” in the view of the world is at stake. This is why..the report does NOT use the word..torture. Wait and see.

      08/1/14 12:24 PM | Comment Link

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