Do Debtor's Prisons Exist in Modern-day America?

Mar 29, 2016

Credit action.org

  The question of debtors imprisonment was a topic of discussion after a man died in jail. 

On January 23, a Box Elder County man was arrested for not paying an ambulance bill in December 2013. The fine was for $2,376. The man died that afternoon while in a holding cell. The cause of death is still under investigation.

Eli Hagar, staff writer for the Marshall Project, says the US has returned to imprisoning people who aren’t able to pay their debt. He said this is possibly unconstitutional because unless you’re in a criminal proceeding, you don’t receive protections.

“To a certain extent, I think it may have been there all along. But I think one of the things that has happened more recently is that with the fiscal crisis of the 2000s, a lot of states were asking their court systems to be self-sufficient. So, courts had to make the money that they were spending though fines and fees and things like that.”

Karen Martin, assistant professor of Public Management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said one reason for the problem is the boundaries of criminal and civil justice system has become blurred.

“So you can end up in jail for littering, or loitering, or being in a park after dark through not paying fines and fees.”

Martin said it is critically important for citizens to know their legal rights because it is almost impossible to receive legal counsel.

For more information on this topic, check out this episode of Access Utah.