Political Animal


April 07, 2013 11:29 AM Debtors’ prisons are back: how heart-warmingly Dickensian!

By Kathleen Geier

Sometimes, I think our society is becoming more and more Dickensian. Unfortunately, I don’t mean Dickensian in the sense of the big happy family gathering around the hearth for a jolly Christmas feast, or the flinty-hearted miser experiencing a life-altering event that, at long last, causes him to rediscover his humanity and become a benefactor to all mankind. No, what I’m referring to is the dark side of Dickens — and the man had a very dark side indeed.

Take, for example, Thomas Gradgrind, Dickens’ fictional schoolmaster in Hard Times, who espouses the kind of fanatically utilitarian educational philosophy that would warm the heart of Michelle Rhee. “Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts,” Gradgrind proclaims. “Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.” Hard Times is set a mill town, Coketown, full of factories that poison its workers as surely as, for example, the North Carolina glue factory recently profiled in this harrowing New York Times article poisons theirs — and in spite of OSHA regulations that are supposed to protect workers from such horrific consequences. The corrupt financier class, embodied in Dickens characters like Little Dorrit’s Mr. Merdle (Dickens always gave his villains the most brilliantly repulsive names) — clearly, they wield even more power in our society than they did in his.

The Scrooge who, pre-transformation, rebuffs a request to contribute to charity with, “Are there no prisons? … And the Union workhouses, are they still in order?” — that guy expresses the Ayn Rand, anti-altruist philosophy that is all the rage on the right these days far more pithily than any of Rand’s interminably long-winded heroes ever did. (Admittedly, though, ol’ Ebeneezer wasn’t anywhere nearly as hawt as such strapping Randian hunks as John Galt or Howard Roark). Newt Gingrich (now there’s a Dickensian villain name if I ever heard one!) wants to bring back Oliver Twist-style orphanages for welfare kids.

Even what was perhaps the single greatest scourge of Dickens’ England, the child labor that haunts his novels (and that he himself experienced, when he worked in boot blacking factory as a boy) has not totally disappeared from our society. For example, child migrant farm workers are still with us, and still subject to systemic exploitation. At one point, the Obama administration looked like it was ready to institute some serious reforms, but it caved to agribusiness interests and sadly, the underaged farm workers are still subject to the same abuses.

The latest creepy relic from the darkest recesses of the Dickensian past that appears to be making a comeback these days are debtors’ prisons. Debtors’ prisons show up in a number of Dickens’ novels, most notably Little Dorrit, which is one of his masterpieces. George Bernard Shaw claimed it converted him to socialism and called it “a more seditious book than Das Kapital.” Dickens surely knew from debtors’ prisons, since his chronically impecunious father had been in one. And now, as ThinkProgress reports, this reviled institution is being revived, and poor people in Ohio are being thrown in the clink for being unable to pay off debts — mostly legal fees and court fines. On Friday, Ohio’s ACLU released a report about the state’s debtors’ prisons, and it is a sobering and quietly enraging read.

Among the findings of the report:

— Being imprisoned for debt is clearly unconstitutional and was declared so by the U.S. Supreme Court over 20 years ago. It is also against Ohio law.

— People are being jailed for failure to pay fines and court costs, sometimes for amounts as low as a few hundred dollars.

— 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 says 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 add 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. When they start bringing back those Dickensian child chimney sweeps — 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 blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee


  • walldon on April 07, 2013 1:44 PM:

    I suppose that's what Republicans want to do with the 47 percent. Just saw a post at the facebook page of a Republican acquaintance who, instead of drug testing welfare recipients, suggested they be injected with lethal doses of the drugs.

    Ah, and these people call themselves Christians!

  • mmm on April 07, 2013 1:57 PM:

    A class action lawsuit for million$ of dollars against the state of Ohio should get these people a pretty comfortable life. Where is the State Attorney on this issue?

  • Keith M Ellis on April 07, 2013 2:05 PM:

    None of these are truly "debtor's prisons", although "failure to appear" penalties that result after creditor lawsuits are extremely close.

    But your Think Progress link equivocates "debtor's prisons" with jailing those who've been convicted of crimes, sentenced fines and penalties, and then fail to pay those fines and penalties. This is not remotely like a debtor prison and surely is a right and necessary consequence of having our criminal justice utilize fines and financial penalties in its judgments.

    I mean, really, would you or Think Progress accuse the federal courts of utilizing a "debtor's prison" when it jails some Wall Street banker who was convicted of fraud and assessed a million dollar fine he subsequently didn't pay? I think not.

    All this arguably calls into question the use of financial penalties in criminal justice, as they are very regressive and more likely to result in imprisonment of the poor than the wealthy. I find that argument very compelling. But that's not the argument being offered and, anyway, eliminating financial penalties from American criminal justice won't happen, for reasons ranging from the practical to cultural.

    Conflating the jailing of those who don't pay the fines that result from criminal convictions with those who are specifically sued by creditors, don't appear in court, and are subsequently jailed is doing a deep disservice to the cause of the latter, who are credibly the sufferers of injustice. This is a serious problem that ought to be taken seriously and equivocating with criminal convictions is egregious.

    That said, the "failure to appear" penalties in these cases are only a subcategory of a general mechanism that is self-evidently necessary. The civil courts need to have mechanisms to force compliance, including appearances, or they wouldn't function.

    If we take it as self-evident that imprisoning people for failing to pay their debts, even in a roundabout fashion, is unjust — and most of us who are progressive, or even have some semblance of human decency agree with this — then this argues that the problem must lie in credit law and how it's handled in civil courts. I'm not sure how it should be changed, and I fear to speculate because anything I offer off the top of my head will surely have unintended negative consequences. Generally, though, we ought to far more restrict the legal power of creditors, put it more in line with European standards.

    Good luck on that in the US, though.

  • c u n d gulag on April 07, 2013 2:08 PM:

    Conservative POV:
    We love that certain people are being constantly screwed.

    And we love applying what ever means we can find at hand, to keep turning the screws, to remind them of how badly they're screwed!

    Where's the fun in forgiveness?
    Where's the profit?

    If they can't pay what they owe, they MUST be punished!

    It's for their own moral good.

  • matt w on April 07, 2013 2:23 PM:

    Keith -- I would be against jailing the banker if the banker were unable to pay his fine. Which means that, before jailing someone for failure to pay, you'd need a hearing. And from p. 5 of the ACLU report, "Based on the ACLU of Ohio’s investigation, there is no evidence that any of these people were given hearings to determine whether or not they were financially able to pay their fines, as required by the law."

    Are you arguing that jailing people who are unable to pay fines is a right and necessary consequence of the law? If so, then you're arguing that people ought to be jailed for being poor when a rich person who had committed the same crime would escape jail. This is atrocious and also not in actual accord with the law, as described by the ACLU.

  • Shadow on April 07, 2013 2:26 PM:

    AHEM throwing people in jail for refusal to pay legal fines isn't debtors prison. It's putting them in jail for contempt of court. If Ohio was throwing people in jail for refusing to pay say an overdue credit card bill that had gone into collections, that would be debtors prison. Never mind the fact that credit cards themselves are a debtors prison of a kind LOL But still, failing to pay court costs/fines is contempt of court and is not Dickensian. This article is invalid, except for the Newt Gingrich and the Oliver Twist-like orphanages.

  • Anonymous on April 07, 2013 3:00 PM:

    "Are you arguing that jailing people who are unable to pay fines is a right and necessary consequence of the law? If so, then you're arguing that people ought to be jailed for being poor when a rich person who had committed the same crime would escape jail."

    No. Did you miss the following two sentences in my comment?

    "All this arguably calls into question the use of financial penalties in criminal justice, as they are very regressive and more likely to result in imprisonment of the poor than the wealthy. I find that argument very compelling."

    And, anyway, have you ever had a hearing about your ability to pay a traffic fine? But if you don't pay it, you will be jailed. Hearings about the ability to pay penalties are the exception, not the rule.

    The fact that my hypothetical banker is more likely to have such a hearing than an unemployed person with a speeding ticket is an example of the problem. And what exactly do you think is the alternative to fines when someone is found to be unable to pay them? The hearing changes very little, the end result is that the poor are imprisoned.

    The alternatives are to abolish fines or to ensure that they're precisely commensurate with someone's economic status. And while I would happily support such changes, I'm sorry to report to you that either of these alternatives are extremely fringe in American politics, roughly equivalent to, say, allowing pre-pubescent children to vote. It won't happen, it is self-evidently absurd to almost everyone.

    And if we're going to continue to have fines, which we're going to, then we're going to be forced to imprison people who don't pay them and people who can't pay them. Go to your county jail and find out how many people there are convicted of minor crimes and serving small sentences as an alternative to paying a fine. How many of those people are middle-class or wealthy?

    The injustice that you're pointing to is buried deep within American criminal justice and eliminating it would require a comprehensive overhaul in a direction that is contrary to prevailing American sentiment. Arguing that it could be corrected by ensuring that there are hearings on ability to pay fines ranges from pathetic (in its minimal implication) to fantastical (in its maximal implication).

    Meanwhile, the problems related to creditors and debtors are small in contrast and quite urgent.

  • Frank Wilhoit on April 07, 2013 4:49 PM:

    You really only have one takeaway here.

    "Being imprisoned for debt is...[clearly] unconstitutional and was declared so by the U.S. Supreme Court over 20 years ago. It is also against Ohio law."

    And yet it is happening anyway. Why? How? What means exist to act upon the illegality of these incarcerations? Why are they failing or not being brought to bear?

  • cmdicely on April 07, 2013 6:33 PM:

    Calling these "debtor's prisons" is equivocation; debtor's prisons were for imprisoning people until and unless they paid off their debts. Jailing people for a specified term for failure to pay criminal fines (often explicitly given in lieu of imprisonment), or for failing to pay judgements of courts like child support, while certainly unconstitutional when there is no consideration of inability to pay versus refusal to pay, is not the same thing as debtor's prisons, and using dishonest false equivalencies to draw attention can backfire when people respond negatively to the lie.

  • Rick B on April 07, 2013 6:37 PM:

    When you believe that society consists of classes, one of which is destined to rule, then that ruling class will find it necessary to teach the lower classes their manners. Punishment is what teaches the illiterate lower classes their manners.

    The GOP depends on the rules of the past from before the industrial urban society that now makes up the majority of American society. Ayn Rand was a Russian who believed in that class society completely, and the Koch Brothers do too.

    I think it might be a good idea to set up some memorial guillotines and tumbrels in places where the wealthy can see them as they pass by. You know, 'to encourage the others?'

    The General Strike in Britain might have that effect.

  • matt w on April 07, 2013 9:27 PM:

    I didn't miss any of your original post, Keith. But there's a difference between "It's too bad that we use fines, because then poor people will be jailed when they aren't able to pay those fines," which is what you argued for, and "If we use fines, then people who are able to pay those fines but don't will be jailed," which is what the actual law appears to be, according to all the sources cited in this post. All the rest of your verbiage doesn't change that simple fact.

  • Keith M Ellis on April 07, 2013 11:09 PM:

    "All the rest of your verbiage doesn't change that simple fact."

    No, but what I asserted and what the law says are both true. You seem to believe that only those who can afford to pay a fine are expected to pay a fine or face imprisonment, which isn't true.

    What do you think happens when someone does have a hearing to determine their ability to pay a fine and it's discovered that they have absolutely no assets or income?

    Do you think the court says, oh, well, sorry, you can't pay a fine and it would be unjust to imprison you simply because you can't pay a fine, so you're free to go?

    The alternative to a fine is imprisonment of some sort.

    The structure of expected payments of a fine might be altered relative to the ability to pay. But the amount of the fine isn't proportionate to the ability to pay, it's a function of the severity of the crime and sentence.

    As a result, by the very nature of offering fines as a punishment, the poor will be disproportionately imprisoned relative to the rich.

    And you know this, you're just being obtuse. You know that traffic fines have set values and aren't scaled to the ability to pay. You know that the alternative to paying the fine is imprisonment (or probation, which is related). You know that there are people who are so poor that trivial fines are beyond their means. I hope that you know that vagrancy is a crime in most jurisdictions and is punished by fines or imprisonment and that, effectively, because vagrants can't pay fines, they're imprisoned. Your notion that American criminal justice would, if it worked as designed, never imprison poor people effectively because they're poor is either naive or ignorant.

    So either have the courage of your conviction and oppose fines in general, or give up your childish notion that a right to a hearing on the ability to pay a fine avoids poor people ever being imprisoned because they cannot afford to pay a fine. Because it doesn't.

  • paul on April 08, 2013 8:53 AM:

    You have to think about failure-to-appear jailings in the context of people whose mail is regularly stolen from their boxes (assuming the court has kept proper track of their address in the first place) and whose schedules and transportation modes are not their own.

    People with lawyers get court dates postponed for cause all the time. But someone without a lawyer, who may not even have gotten notice of their court date, goes to jail without that chance. Even if they had a perfectly good argument (e.g. "if I come to court that day, I will lose my job") for postponement.

    Sure, the actual imprisonment isn't for debt any more, it's for violating a court order to pay the debt, or for failure to pay court fees of which the defendant may or may not be aware. But the effect is the same, and if you go directly from debt to jail without a hearing, it's no better than the tipstaffs who used to grab debtors off the street in the 18th century.

  • kevin mulcahy on April 08, 2013 10:52 AM:

    I wonder if judges have discretion, in the case of small fines, to jail or not jail according to the circumstances--e.g. to jail a person who willfully refuses to pay and not jail someone who cannot pay. Of course, a judge's discretion can be abused too.

    I am reminded of this line from Anatole France: "The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich and the poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread."

  • Dredd on April 08, 2013 12:50 PM:

    In The Supreme Court of The United States:

    Petitioner pleaded guilty in a Georgia trial court to burglary and theft by receiving stolen property, but the court, pursuant to the Georgia First Offender's Act, did not enter a judgment of guilt and sentenced petitioner to probation on the condition that he pay a $500 fine and $250 in restitution, with $100 payable that day, $100 the next day, and the $550 balance within four months. Petitioner borrowed money and paid the first $200, but about a month later he was laid off from his job, and, despite repeated efforts, was unable to find other work. Shortly before the $550 balance became due, he notified the probation office that his payment was going to be late. Thereafter, the State filed a petition to revoke petitioner's probation because he had not paid the balance, and the trial court, after a hearing, revoked probation, entered a conviction, and sentenced petitioner to prison. The record of the hearing disclosed that petitioner had been unable to find employment and had no assets or income. The Georgia Court of Appeals rejected petitioner's claim that imprisoning him for inability to pay the fine and make restitution violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Georgia Supreme Court denied review.

    Held: A sentencing court cannot properly revoke a defendant's probation for failure to pay a fine and make restitution, absent evidence and findings that he was somehow responsible for the failure or that alternative forms of punishment were inadequate to meet the State's interest in punishment and deterrence, and hence here the trial court erred in automatically revoking petitioner's probation and turning the fine into a prison sentence without making such a determination. Pp. 664-674.

    (a) If a State determines a fine or restitution to be the appropriate and adequate penalty for the crime, it may not thereafter imprison a person solely because he lacked the resources to pay it. Williams v. Illinois, 399 U.S. 235, 90 S.Ct. 2018, 26 L.Ed.2d 586; Tate v. Short, 401 U.S. 395, 91 S.Ct. 668, 28 L.Ed.2d 130. If the probationer has willfully refused to pay the fine or restitution when he has the resources to pay or has failed to make sufficient bona fide efforts to seek employment or borrow money to pay, the State is justified in using imprisonment as a sanction to enforce collection. But if the probationer has made all reasonable bona fide efforts to pay the fine and yet cannot do so through no fault of his own, it is fundamentally unfair to revoke probation automatically without considering whether adequate alternative methods of punishing the probationer are available to meet the State's interest in punishment and deterrence. Pp. 664-669.

    (b) The State may not use as the sole justification for imprisonment the poverty or inability of the probationer to pay the fine and to make restitution if he has demonstrated sufficient bona fide efforts to do so. Pp. 669-672.

    (c) Only if alternative measures of punishment are not adequate to meet the State's interests in punishment and deterrence may the court imprison a probationer who has made sufficient bona fide efforts to pay the fine. To do otherwise would deprive the probationer of his conditional freedom simply because, through no fault of his own, he cannot pay. Such a deprivation would be contrary to the fundamental fairness required by the Fourteenth Amendment. Pp.672-673

    161 Ga.App. 640, 288 S.E.2d 662, reversed and remanded.

    James H. Lohr, Chattanooga, Tenn., for petitioner, pro hac vice, by special leave of Court.

    George M. Weaver, Atlanta, Ga., for respondent.

    Justice O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.

    Bearden v. Georgia, 461 U.S. 660, 103 S.Ct. 2064, 76 L.Ed.2d 221 (1983).

  • Anonymous on April 09, 2013 10:40 AM:

    "And when they start bringing back the child chimneysweeps... please kill me quickly."

    Apologies for the OT, but, hey, this IS in the original post, as you see.
    I wonder if I'm manifesting selection bias here, or has anyone else noticed what I believe I have, as exemplified here, which is:
    Lefties frequently use figures of speech such as the above (and "shoot me now," and so forth), suggestive of self-harm and self-extinction (albeit in jest), or at least self-deportation, while righties rarely do.
    Righties, on the other hand -- at least those that comment at Powerline, RedState, FreeRepublic, and Politico -- seem overly fond of tropes wishing violence upon and/or elimination of Others, especially Othered Americans, such as, well, US, not to put too fine a point on it.
    Am I alone in these perceptions?

  • smartalek on April 09, 2013 10:45 AM:

    Sorry, so focused on getting the #@$%ing Captcha right, I forgot to ID myself.
    The above observation/query is mine.

  • Jimmy Horowitz on April 10, 2013 10:44 AM:

    @ Keith Ellis:
    "I mean, really, would you or Think Progress accuse the federal courts of utilizing a "debtor's prison" when it jails some Wall Street banker who was convicted of fraud and assessed a million dollar fine he subsequently didn't pay?"
    Hmm. Have ANY Wall Street Bankers actually been accused and convicted of any of their crimes yet? No, I didn't think so either. Let me know when this happens, OK?

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