It used to be that debts were enforced with the threat of imprisonment. If you took out a loan and you couldn’t afford to pay it back, then you would be arrested and thrown in jail. But now—in the United States, at least—debtors’ prisons are supposed to be a thing of the past, a relic from a more barbaric era.
“For the most part, the US outlawed debtors’ prisons before the Civil War,” said guest host Ezra Klein on Tuesday’s episode of The Rachel Maddow Show.
And yet. “In this country, we are still throwing people into prison for owing money and not paying it back. And here’s the really perverse part: they owe the money to us.”
According to a Tuesday New York Times article, an increasing number of cash-strapped American cities are punishing minor legal infractions with fees as a way of adding a little extra money to their coffers. And because they don’t have the resources to adequately fund their courts and prisons, these same cities wind up recruiting for-profit corporations to mete out punishment. Times reporter Ethan Bronner writes that some of those companies, notably one called Judicial Corrections Services, “charge public authorities nothing and make their money by adding fees onto the bills of the defendants.”
The results are staggering: one man mentioned in the article, Richard Garrett, “has spent a total of 24 months in jail and owes $10,000, all for traffic and license violations that began a decade ago…”