Yes, it is technically illegal to put people in jail for not paying a debt. However it is perfectly legal to put people in jail if they don’t pay a court fine, which isn’t technically a debt because a court isn’t technically a creditor. Even though you owe money to it. Make sense?
No, not really. Because whatever you call it, you can end up in jail if you don’t pay it.
Even so, it’s easier to shrug this whole thing off if the court and sheriff are the ones enforcing payment. When it gets outsourced to a private company, it starts to look like regular old debt collection. On MoneyWatch, Aimee Picchi explains that’s exactly what some courts are doing:
[M]unicipal courts increasingly outsource probation to for-profit companies like [Judicial Correction Services], which make their money by tacking on their own fees to traffic violations. They typically don’t charge the courts or municipalities for their services.
On the surface, these companies are managing probation. But they can also recommend incarceration if you don’t pay the private company for managing your probation — fees you wouldn’t pay otherwise. More debt means more people who don’t pay, which means JCS will recommend jail time until you do pay, which means more people in jail.
It’s good, old-fashioned debt collection, and by old-fashioned I mean pre-1830s, which is when debtors prison was apparently-ineffectually outlawed.
Picchi’s article was just published, but this is hardly a new problem. Here are my previous posts about it from 2009 and 2010:
- “Debtors’ Prison Returns to Florida”
- “The New Debtors’ Prison”
- “Debt Collectors Causing Consumers to be Arrested”
- “Should Creditors Be Able to Send “Deadbeats” To Jail?”
- “How to Avoid Ending Up in Jail for Debt”
Wikipedia even has a section for “United States of America: Modern debtors’ prisons (1970–current).”