Originally published February 6 2015
Thousands of Americans are being sent to modern-day debtors' prisons every month
by J. D. Heyes
(NaturalNews) There is a saying that goes, "There is nothing new under the sun." Seems that's true for people who owe money.
Once upon a time in Western Europe, circa the 19th century, debtors' prisons were a common phenomenon. And they were exactly what they sound like: Prisons for people who were unable to pay their debts. People who were destitute or simply had fallen on hard times and were unable to repay court-ordered judgments were "sentenced" to these prisons. They remained there until they were able to either work off what they owed or secure funding from another source.
Now, in 21st century America, debtors' prisons are making a comeback.
According to a new report from Human Rights Watch called Profiting from Probation, more than 1,000 courts around the country "delegate tremendous coercive power to companies that are often subject to little meaningful oversight or regulation."
Further, a summary of the report states:
In many cases, the only reason people are put on probation is because they need time to pay off fines and court costs linked to minor crimes. In some of these cases, probation companies act more like abusive debt collectors than probation officers, charging the debtors for their services.
Often, the group says, the poorest Americans wind up having to pay the most in fees over time, in what amounts to a discriminatory penalty. When they fail to pay, companies then can, and do, ensure that they are arrested.
So, while such incarceration is not actually called "debtors' prison," the result is the same.
Forced to skip meals
In particular, notes the ACLU, which is taking up the cause of ending such incarcerations:
Human Rights Watch tells the story of Thomas Barrett in Georgia. Unemployed and living off food stamps, Barrett was out on probation and ordered to pay a $200 fine for stealing a $2 can of beer from a convenience store. On top of that, Sentinel Offender Services, LLC, the company administering Barrett's probation, charged him $360 per month in supervision and monitoring fees despite the fact that Barrett's only source of income was money earned by selling his blood plasma.
Barrett was forced to skip meals in order to pay Sentinel. Nevertheless, he still fell behind in payments and at one point wound up owing the company $1,000 in fees -- or five times more than the $200 fine that a court had imposed.
In a bid to collect the debt, Sentinel then petitioned a court to revoke Barrett's probation, which it did. He was then jailed.
At no point did Sentinel or the court take into account Barrett's inability to earn enough money to pay, the ACLU noted, "the latter, a clear violation of the law."
"Imprisoning someone because she cannot afford to pay court-imposed fines or fees violates the 14th Amendment," says the ACLU.
Many are simply indigent
And Barrett is just one of thousands of cases, the legal assistance group says.
What's more, the trend towards more, not fewer, such cases has been growing. In 2010, the ACLU produced its own report, In for a Penny: The Rise of America's New Debtor Prisons, a description of which notes:
[A]cross the country, in the face of mounting budget deficits, states are more aggressively going after poor people who have already served their criminal sentences. These modern-day debtors' prisons impose devastating human costs, waste taxpayer money and resources, undermine our criminal justice system, are racially skewed, and create a two-tiered system of justice.
In addition, PBS reports that cities around the country are also turning to the debtors' prison model, using private companies to collect unpaid debts and then ensuring that they get sent to jail when they can't pay. Many are simply indigent, PBS noted.
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