Monday, April 06, 2009

Return of Debtors' Prison

Here is an editorial from the New York Times commenting on the return of a venerable institution to the United States--the debtors' prison. The editorial describes the case of Edwina Nowlin of Michigan who "was ordered to reimburse a juvenile detention center $104 a month for holding her 16-year-old son." Because she could not afford to pay, she was sent to prison. She spent twenty-eight days behind bars before the ACLU of Michigan secured her release. According to the ACLU, "more people are being sent to jail because they cannot make various court-ordered payments. That is both barbaric and unconstitutional." There was a similar incident in Georgia, where a woman was imprisoned for eight months past her original sentence because of a $705 fine she could not pay. Until recently, the police in Gulfport, Mississippi did "sweeps ... of predominantly African-American neighborhoods, identified people with unpaid fines, and put them in jail." Those who could not pay were forced to stay in jail until "they 'sat off' their fines." The Times opines that "in these hard times, when government budgets are under pressure, courts and prisons will get even tougher about forcing indigent defendants to pay costs and fees, and will imprison more of them if they cannot come up with the money." Keeping people is jail is not only barbaric and unconstitutional--it is counterproductive. People in jail have no ability to earn money and pay back their debts. That is as true today as it was in Victorian England. The subject has been much on my mind lately due to the new PBS production of Charles Dickens's Little Dorrit, which I am enjoying very much. The illustration is of Marshalsea Prison in which Mr. Dorrit is imprisoned for many years for debt and where Little Dorrit is born and raised.

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