Debtors’ Prisons Returning to America
By David M. Reutter
As the United States was becoming an independent nation with its own values and form of government, it discarded an archaic English system that drove the poor into greater poverty. When the U.S. ended the practice of debtors’ prisons in 1833, it ensured that people would not be jailed merely for the crime of being too poor to pay one’s debts.
More recently, the Supreme Court held two decades ago that government officials cannot revoke a defendant’s probation and send them to prison if they are unable to pay fines or restitution in criminal cases. See: Bearden v. Georgia, 461 U.S. 660 (1983).
Over the years, however, the prohibition against the criminalization of poverty steadily waned. The law may not allow one’s arrest and incarceration for nonpayment of bills, but the failure to attend court hearings or pay fines or fees, or displaying “contempt of court” when a creditor files suit, has been a backdoor pathway to jail for some debtors. [See: PLN, July 2011, p.40; May 2011, p.22, 26; May 2010, p.40; April 2010, p.8].
Breast cancer survivor Lisa Lindsay of Herrin, Illinois found herself in jail over a medical bill she was informed she didn’t owe. “She got a $280 medical bill in error and was told she didn’t have to pay it,” reported the Associated Press. “But the bill was turned over to a collection agency, and eventually state troopers showed up at her home and took her to jail in handcuffs.”
Tacking legal fees onto the original debt resulted in Lindsay, a teacher’s assistant, paying more than $600 to resolve the matter. “I paid it in full so they couldn’t do it to me again,” she said.