Inmates at London debtors’ prisons in the 1800s were allowed to beg passers-by for money through the grate in the wall

Just in time for income tax season…

A sordid feature of 19th century Victorian life was the debtor’s prison.

People who could not pay their financial debt simply went to prison, punishment for not being wealthy. The point was often muddied, as from inside jail a person could most certainly not earn any money to pay off the debt, though one supposes the rich chortled knowing those who stiffed them suffered for the act. It was kind of a thing to do back then. The prisons, chronicled most famously by Charles Dickens among other Victorian crimes against a just society, were a step from Roman and Greek days when debtors could become the actual bonded slaves of the people to whom they owed money.

Debtor’s prisons were from Colonial days through the early 1800s a feature of American life, until enlightened societal views (yeah, slavery took a bit longer to sort out) and new bankruptcy laws pushed them from the scene. State-by-state the practice of locking people up to punish them for owing money generally faded; Kentucky did away with it in 1821, still-business friendly Virginia dragged its feet until 1849. Between 1970 and 1982, in a series of cases, the Supremes did away with the practice once and for all as a violation of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. Until now of course.

Until Now of Course

More and more states have revived the debtors prison, albeit in a specific form, locking people up for failure to pay court costs and fees. Like so many other things in America, shortfalls in budgets are made up not by raising taxes (or heaven forbid, fiscal prudence) but by new arrays of costs and fees paid by people in the criminal justice system. We are not referring to fine or penalty (ex. speeding ticket=$250) here, but to that thing the judges say on TV– “Guilty, with a fine of $300 and court costs. Next case please.”

The new costs can be dizzying. The Brennan Center at New York University reports:

Some jurisdictions have haphazardly created an interlocking system of fees that can combine to create insurmountable debt burdens. Florida has added more than 20 new fees since 1996. In 2009, the Council of State Governments Justice Center found that a “sprawling number of state and local fees and court costs that state law prescribes as a result of a criminal conviction amounts to a nearly incomprehensible package. In 2009, North Carolina instituted late fees for failure to pay a fine, and added a surcharge for being placed on a payment plan. Jurisdictions in at least nine states charge people extra fees for entering into payment plans, which are purportedly designed to make payments easier.

The Problem(s)

Leaving aside the not insignificant question of the morality of imprisoning people for debt (an issue that was supposedly resolved years ago), we note that no country incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than the United States. At 716 per 100,000 people, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies, the U.S. tops every other nation in the world (insert “American Exceptionalism” comment). The United States has about five percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Prisons are already overcrowded in most places, so on the face, creating new reasons to put people in jail seems a bad idea.

Of course the idea of debtor’s prison also impacts more exactly the people who need more impacting less, the poor. People with money pay the fees and go home. People without money go to jail. In hard-hit Huron County, Ohio in 2012, twenty percent of all arrests were for failure to pay fines. By coincidence, Huron County has a poverty rate above twenty-six percent.

But Shouldn’t People Pay Their Debts?

The governments’ case is as predicted. “When, and only when, an individual is convicted of a crime, there are required fees and court costs,” said Pamela Dembe, of the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania. “If the defendant doesn’t pay, law-abiding taxpayers must pay these costs.”

She’s right of course. When people don’t pay their fees and court costs, it is indeed the taxpayer who ends up paying. But not in the way you might think. Locking up debtors costs money. The U.S. as a whole spends some $39 billion a year on locking people up. There are also incalculable collateral costs, such as families left without a parent. But really, it is about money. The costs to states of locking people up are significant– it costs an average of about $47,000 per year to incarcerate someone in California.

Now sure, Charlie Manson in Super Max and Poor Old Joe in the county lockup do not cost the same, but then again, logic isn’t always the winner: The Brennan Center reports that there are inmates in Pennsylvania who are eligible for release but are kept in prison based on their inability to pay a $60 fee. The daily cost of confinement is nearly $100 per day. In 2009, Mecklenburg County, North Carolina jailed 246 debtors who did not pay for an average of four days. The county collected $33,476 while the jail terms cost $40,000 — a loss for the county.

Stop Making Sense

So we are left with the question of why. Debtors’ prisons in the U.S. were declared unconstitutional, but states have re-implemented them anyway. A person locked up can’t earn money to pay the debt. And most significantly, it ends up costing many jurisdictions more money to punish someone for not paying than they would have “spent” just forgetting the debt. So why do states do this? To be fair, many states do not, and some that do often try and work out some sort of payment plan first. OK, good enough.

Now this may all be for the best. On the streets, nobody is overly concerned about providing food, medical care and shelter to poor people; outside they’re lazy, don’t want to work, nip at the public tit and all. Why, it would be socialism to help them after all. However, inside the prison system they all get food, medical and dental care, all tucked in a warm bed. Our society is apparently more ready to care for a criminal than for a citizen down on his luck.

The reality in America is that far too many people go to jail as punishment for not paying the fees and court costs incurred finding them already guilty of something else. One is left with a tough conclusion: we are more and more a crude, course society on path towards some sort of feudalism, where the rich (if ever brought to court at all) pay their money and walk out, while poor people are punished for no valid reason. We as a society want to set examples, clear the streets of our lowers, punish those who aren’t able to pay the government for giving them their day in court. That’s who we are now. And you better pay your bills.


Peter Van Buren writes about current events at blog. His book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent is available now from from Amazon.