economy

As economy flails, debtors’ prisons thrive

by ALAIN SHERTER, CBS Moneywatch  |  published on April 6, 2013

Thousands of Americans are sent to jail not for committing a crime, but because they can’t afford to pay for traffic tickets, medical bills and court fees.

If that sounds like a debtors’ prison, a legal relic which was abolished in this country in the 1830s, that’s because it is. And courts and judges in states across the land are violating the Constitution by incarcerating people for being unable to pay such debts.

Ask Jack Dawley, 55, an unemployed man in Ohio who between 2007 and 2012 spent a total of 16 days in jail in a Huron County lock-up for failing to pay roughly $1,500 in legal fines he’d incurred in the 1990s. The fines stemmed from Dawley’s convictions for driving under the influence and other offenses. After his release from a Wisconsin correctional facility, Dawley, who admits he had struggled with drugs and alcohol, got clean. But if he put his substance problems behind him, Dawley’s couldn’t outrun his debts.

Struggling to find a job and dealing with the effects of a back injury, he fell behind on repayments to the municipal court in Norwalk, Ohio. He was arrested six years ago and sent to jail for not paying his original court fines. Although Dawley was put on a monthly payment plan, during his latest stint behind bars in 2012 the court ordered him to pay off his entire remaining debt.

” I called my brother, and they told him I have to pay off the whole fine in order for me to get out,” he said. “That was $900. So I sat my whole 10 days [in jail.]”

Such stories are by no means unusual. Rather, they reflect a justice system that in effect criminalizes poverty. “It’s a growing problem nationally, particularly because of the economic crisis,” said Inimai Chettiar, director of the justice program at New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice.

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