Friday, May 23, 2014

Debtors prison

All this week NPR ran a series titled Guilty and Charged. Debtors prison was outlawed a long time ago and the Supremes have ruled that a person can't be sent to jail if he is too poor to pay a court fine. But that hasn't stopped judges in nearly all states of imposing fines, and, more importantly, court costs, and then putting a person in jail if the fines can't be paid. Part of the question is what does it mean to be well-off enough to pay? The presence of a cell phone? The presence of (expensive?) tattoos?

The practice can get weird. A man can't pay a fine. He is jailed for several days. He is charged room and board for his time in jail (some counties pay for their jail system this way). He can't pay that either. Jailed again. No way out.

Another man can't pay, but tells the judge he just got a job and will be able to pay by the end of the week. Don't pay today, you go to jail today. I'll lose my job! Too bad. And when you get out one of your conditions of parole is to keep a job -- don't keep it and you're back in jail. But, judge, I have a job now, which I'll lose if I go to jail.

One law-and-order type said punishment means giving up money or time. If you don't have one you must give up the other. Those are the only two choices available. But there are more choices: reparative justice programs, realistic payment plans, and community service.

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