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Cycles of Debt
America’s Debt Prison Scandal

County jails across the country have effectively become debtor’s prisons as Americans in lock-up for minor offenses have their stays prolonged due to debts they incur. The NYT examines a disturbing new report on how jails function:

The study, “Incarceration’s Front Door: The Misuse of Jails in America,” found that the majority of those incarcerated in local and county jails are there for minor violations, including driving with suspended licenses, shoplifting or evading subway fares, and have been jailed for longer periods of time over the past 30 years because they are unable to pay court-imposed costs […]

The number of people housed in jails on any given day in the country has increased from 224,000 in 1983 to 731,000 in 2013 — nearly equal to the population of Charlotte, N.C. — even as violent crime nationally has fallen by nearly 50 percent and property crime has dropped by more than 40 percent from its peak.

There is, however, some good news. Americans are increasingly aware of the constellation of issues surrounding much-needed reforms of police practices, the criminal justice system, and prisons. In this case, the NYT cites a initiative by the MacArthur Foundation to finance efforts in 20 U.S. jurisdictions “that are seeking alternatives to sending large numbers of people to jail.” Leaders on both sides of the aisle have begun not only to condemn the status quo in U.S. prisons, but also to take concrete steps towards changing it. We hope that soon the same can be said of local jails and the debt traps that keep Americans impoverished and imprisoned.

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  • Fat_Man

    The Supreme Court ruled that such practices were unconstitutional in a series of rulings in the 1970s and 80s. I guess it shows us something about the ability of the Supreme Court to control the American legal system.

  • wigwag

    This is the perfect example of a case where the left and the right and Democrats and Republicans should be able to work together to solve a problem that is easily fixable.

    • FriendlyGoat

      Easily fixable? You mean like maybe getting clones of Bill de Blasio everywhere to tick off the police so they go into protest mode and skip minor arrests?

      There are some Christians on the political right who are becoming embarrassed by the ridiculousness of some incarceration, even though though their party pushed that trend for several recent decades. And then there are some fiscal Republicans who are not wanting to spend so much on incarceration, but if there was a broad agreement between left and right on how to reduce costs to be assessed against those arrested, it would already be done. The idea of charging the poor less for their misbehavior has not really arrived yet on the right, has it?

  • Buckland

    There’s a lot more wrapped up in this than cutting back on court costs. What to do about the infractions mentioned above (driving with suspended licenses, shoplifting or evading subway fares) in addition to the other quality of life issues such aggressive panhandling, public intoxication, public urination, etc. Cities have to enforce sanctions on these crimes. If they don’t they hear about it really forcefully from the constituents. People don’t want to come to cities that smell like urine or the squeegee guys demand money for window washing.

    Then the question becomes how do you enforce sanctions against the small crimes without fines? Jail usually isn’t the first line of punishment. Public floggings and displaying the miscreant in stocks in the public square has seen its day. And most court costs aren’t for the actual offense. Predominantly they come when fines aren’t paid and summons are ignored.

    The reality is that cities tend to be run by liberal Democrats that are pretty responsive to the plight of the poor. But having laws on the books that aren’t enforced is a recipe for disaster. There have been several articles on the web recently about the plight of people who get caught in this but I’m not seeing the alternative.

  • FriendlyGoat

    “constellation of issues surrounding much-needed reforms of police practices, the criminal justice system, and prisons” (and jails)

    Good phrase, TAI. We know that “articles” are good for covering one subject at a time. But “lists” are good for conveying an overview.
    I hope you will just list the constellation of issues when time and space permit.

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