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Think Only Criminals Go to Jail? Debtor Prisons are Making a Comeback in America

by Yvette Carnell

It is a general assumption among most Americans that the State should uphold laws which are in the best interest of the people. But debtors prisonwhat happens once the government, be it state or federal, has been co-opted by powerful corporate interests? Or when cash strapped states take extreme measures to recover lost revenue? You get a return to debtor prisons, which are cropping up all over America.


Kawana Young, a single mother of two kids, was arrested in Michigan after failing to pay money she owed as a result of minor traffic offenses. She was recently laid off from her job, and could not pay the fees she owed because she couldn’t find another source of employment. So a judge sentenced her to three days in jail. In addition, Young was charged additional fees for being booked and for room and board for a place she did not want to be. In total, she has been jailed five times for being unable to pay her debts.

In July of this past year, the New York Times also reported on how people were being locked up for minor probation offenses, and how private probation companies were making millions from this arrangement. One woman, Ms. Ray,  mentioned in the Times story, had been locked up for 40 days and had accrued $3, 170 in fees, all assessed by the private probation company. Ms. Ray’s offense was driving without a license.

From the  New York Times:

 It is, rather, about the mushrooming of fines and fees levied by money-starved towns across the country and the for-profit businesses that administer the system. The result is that growing numbers of poor people, like Ms. Ray, are ending up jailed and in debt for minor infractions.

 This system ensures that the poor, those who can’t pay the fines, stay poor while the wealthy are unaffected. Sadly, this puts poor people in an even deeper financial hole, making it more difficult for them to find a jobs, pay for daycare, or do anything else that’s required  to manage their lives effectively.


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