Doctor Eclectic

Doctor Eclectic
Doctor Eclectic

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Debtor's Prison

Victorian Debtor's Prison
A recent series on NPR brought me new insight into a subject I thought was ancient history: Debtors’ Prisons.  And it turns out there are complexities of which I was totally unaware.  For starters the issue is one where State’s Rights are more to blame than Federal law

In 1983 the Supreme Court challenged the state of Georgia’s decision to imprison an individual because he could not pay court-imposed fines.  At issue was whether the Bankruptcy Reform Law of 1978 supported the Fourteenth Amendment rights for alternative payment of debt.  Bankruptcy has played an important role in making the United States special; for instance the United States position on bankruptcy had a major influence in immigration and the settling of the country during the nineteenth century, as English law was very strict about incarceration for debt, and a major portion of colonialists arrived here with unresolved English debt.


Kyle DeWitt
Prior to listening to the week-long series, I had the notion that the courts position on debt was limited to enforcing child support and damage claims from accidents.  It turns out that it also extends to such topics as: collection agents judgments for medical claims, failure to pay for ankle monitoring devices, housing costs incurred while in jail, fines for misdemeanor thievery, costs for a Public Defender, and my favorite from the series, errors in identifying a species of fish.

Kyle DeWitt was a 23 year-old infrequent laborer who took comfort during his mostly-idle time by fishing.  He was apprehended by a game warden with a small-mouth bass, caught out of season.  His defense, that he thought it was a rock bass (in season) was rejected by the judge and he was ordered to pay a $150 fine or face jail time.  His alternative plan, to pay the fine in installments, was rejected and he was sent to jail, a decision that lost him a promised job, which would have allowed payment of the fine.  In addition, his court debt increased because he was unable to pay the fine in a timely manner.

There seems to be no rationale to explain that jailing someone has a cost, which often exceeds what the court would receive in fines.  Nor does there seem to be much difference in which states continue to jail for debt.  The NPR study and an earlier WSJ survey found that virtually every state has laws that saddle even the destitute with court-related costs.

When one considers how much the subject of debt is in the news today, with student debt garnering national headlines and foreclosure restructuring still working its way through our troubled housing market, one thinks this is one subject that deserves some national attention.

I applaud NPR for taking on this subject.  Already there is demonstrated legislative interest in the subject. Perhaps this is a legislative rarity in which we may see bipartisan support.

I think you will find my next post interesting.  Mary and I recently took advantage of a Member’s Only preview of a truly unique exhibit at the LACMA, titled from Van Gough to Kandinsky.  I’ll explain why the title and what the curator is trying to accomplish.  Please join me.

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