Criminal Justice Debt and the Return of Debtors' Prisons

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Most people believe that debtors' prisons are a relic from English history; however, a new form of debtors' prisons exists for Americans. In his novels, Charles Dickens described the conditions and struggles inmates faced in pre-twentieth century England because they could not pay their debts. The prisons, often operated by private individuals on behalf of the government, charged inmates for services provided, which trapped inmates for long periods as their debts continued to grow during their incarceration. Although legislation in both America and England would end formal debtors' prisons in the nineteenth century, a new form of debtors' prisons has emerged in the United States. These modern-day debtors' prisons exist for defendants who are unable to pay ever-increasing criminal justice debt. Just as the debtors in traditional debtors' prisons faced ever-increasing fees, defendants in the criminal justice system face fees at every stage of the criminal justice process, including pre-trial, sentencing, incarceration, and supervision. These include fees for services from private companies that have contracted with the government and charge substantially above-market rates. Often the fees assessed are more than the fines associated with the underlying criminal offenses. Moreover, individuals unable to pay initial fees and fines may face “poverty penalties” in the form of interest, late fees, and collection charges, putting them in a never-ending cycle of debt. This chapter compares the traditional debtors' prisons to modern-day debtors' practices and evaluates reforms to combat the resurgence of debtors' prisons.

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Saul Schwartz

Book Title

Oppressed by Debt: Government and the Justice System as a Creditor of the Poor

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