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America Officially Dickensian, Jailing People for Years for Unpaid Debt

The corpse of Charles Dickens must be spinning like a whirling dervish.

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— It’s affecting many people — as many as 20% of the bookings in the Huron County jail in the second half of 2012, for example. In two other counties, in one six-week period in 2012, a total of at least 120 people were jailed.

— Sentence lengths vary. One woman went to jail for ten days for being unable to pay $300 in overdue legal fines. A man who owed $1,500 in court fines and was behind in child support payments was sent to prison for three and half years.

— The law requires that you are entitled to a hearing to determine if you are able to pay court costs. Needless to say, none of these folks got that. Nor did they any of them receive a court-appointed attorney (are you joking?).

— Also? This practice makes no economic sense whatsoever. The court costs, cost of serving a warrant, cost of jailing these folks, etc., generally adds up to far more than the defendant owed in the first place.

— Needless to say, this practice is a nightmare for the people being victimized by it. The threat of jail constantly hangs over their heads, particularly if the debt is continuing and they have no way of paying it. Going to jail means they may lose their jobs and they have to scramble for child care. And - duh! — when they’re in jail, they can’t exactly be earning money to pay back their debts.

These people live very hard lives as it is. Jailing them for the crime of being poor is appallingly sadistic. The corpse of Charles Dickens must be spinning like a whirling dervish.

Debtors’ prisons are one kind of “traditional value” from the Dickens era we can all do without. And when they start bringing back the child chimneysweeps — and wouldn’t that make just the most adorable must-have conversation piece for the plutocrat who has everything? — please kill me quickly.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She has written for The Washington Monthly, Salon, Reuters, and other publications. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee.

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