the History of Debtors Prisons and Why It is Important to You (2 of 3)

Debtor Prisons In United States Today

In the United States, although there are no Debtors Prisons specifically, a debtor can be imprisoned in numerous circumstances under criminal penalties which are usually imposed monetarily, but for which the debtor is unable to pay. For example, persons can be found in Contempt of Court and imprisoned after nonpayment of garnishments, confiscations, fines, back taxes and child support.

Such penalties are framed as Contempt of Court, the rationale given is obstruction, fraud or negligent nonpayment. Many debtors are imprisoned for failure to appear or cooperate in civil debt matters. In the United States today, the concept of a Debtor Prison is usually associated with the practice of imprisoning debtors for failure to pay fees exacted in the criminal court system.

A number of United States Supreme Court decisions addressed these issues, including Tate v Short, that held that the 14th Amendment was violated by imposing a fine and then automatically converting the fine into a prison sentence for a defendant unable to pay the fine. In Williams v Illinois, the Supreme Court held that extending or enlarging a prison sentence or punishment because a defendant is too

indigent to pay a fine, violates the US Constitution. These decisions were rendered in 1971 and 1970, respectively. Finally, in 1983, the Supreme Court ruled in Bearden v George that the Fourteenth Amendment prevents Courts from terminating probation because of a debtor’s nonpayment of a fine, without first investigating whether the debtor is able to pay such fine and whether there are alternatives to incarceration.

The Internal Revenue Service or the Department of Revenue, usually cannot incarcerate debtors for failing to pay their Income Taxes. However, the Federal Government can imprison debtors for what they classify as fraudulent behavior.

The Brennan Center For Justice in 2010 conducted a study of the 15 most punitive States, as measured by those States with the highest incarceration rates, in terms as to how those States address debtor issues. The Brennan Center found the main reasons for imprisoning debtors. Debtors are primarily imprisoned for (1) electing imprisonment in situations where imprisonment affords an opportunity to pay Court fines; (2) State Laws that make such debt or fines a condition of probation, supervision or parole, and failure to pay such fines, a condition for imprisonment.

The States, however, in light of the Supreme Court decisions, must make a determination whether such defendants or debtors, are sufficiently indigent that they are unable to pay such debts. Many States permit or mandate imprisonment for failure to pay child support debt. Such failure permits imprisonment as a Contempt of Court charge. These States include Florida, Alabama, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Washington. Involuntary imprisonment because of child support obligations and “voluntary” imprisonment because of defendants or debtors “electing” prison as an alternative to paying court or governmental fines, appear to be the primary causes for incarcerating debtors in the United States.