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Dickens Redux? American Debtors’ Prisons

May 10, 2012

From a woman jailed for a disputed $280.00 medical bill to fathers imprisoned for ‘child support’ that they cannot pay due to illness, injury or unemployment, America is incarcerating her citizens for unpaid debts.  In scenes reminiscent of Dickens, the improvident, the failures, the walking wounded of the divorce courts and those just down on their luck are cast into prison until ‘the last farthing‘ of a debt (disputed or not) is paid.  As in Dickens’ youth, many of our prisons are now ‘privatized,’ meaning that there is no direct accountability to the electorate, as the management of these jails is a matter of contract, rather than one of public administration.

From a public policy standpoint, unintended consequences arise when a policy designed to correct one evil, say, non-support of children by absent parents, creates another, as in cases where the ‘dead-broke’ are meted out the same punishment as the ‘dead-beats.’  Additionally, processing transactions is big business, and so the more transactions, say, child support, that there are to process, the greater the incentive for private contractors and state agencies to create conditions that will produce more of these ‘transactions,’ which means the promotion of family breakup and absent parenthood are the unintended results of a desire to correct for one of the wrongs stemming from these conditions.

Privatization, as a concept, has many adherents.  Hardly an election season passes without a candidate declaring that she will ‘make the government run more like a business.’

Abuse of liberal bankruptcy laws led to bankruptcy reforms that took effect in 2006 as a result of ‘The Bankruptcy Reform Act of 2005.’  Ostensibly intended to end the easy-out bankruptcies used by consumers charging their credit cards up and then walking away, it has resulted in many people, post-recession, being trapped by debts that they can no longer repay. (While not deflation, per se, the effects of reduced earnings power and declining asset values has much the same effect on debtors holding those assets, owing more than they are worth, and having less or no ability to repay the debt.)  This law, coupled with the increasing use of incarceration as a putative remedy for ‘deadbeats’ of various kinds, is the driving force behind the rise of the modern ‘debtors’ prison’ phenomenon.

Whether the foregoing is good public policy or not I will leave it to my  readers to judge for themselves.  What is apparent,, however, is that these legislative and administrative acts have consequences unintended, and that they are magnified by the current economic climate.  Asking, as Cicero so often did, “Qui bono?” would allow us to better anticipate these kinds of developments, as we would have taken the time to consider who benefits by each change in circumstances entailed by the law in question.  Doing so beforehand can help us to avoid the kinds of unintended (by well-meaning people) consequences that lead to imprisonment for debts that cannot be paid.

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3 Comments
  1. Debtor’s prison? I didn’t think there was such a thing. I shouldn’t be surprised. No society in history has imprisoned more of its citizens than the United States. There is a larger percent of young black males in prison than in college.

    • Yes, and that is very hard to explain in moral, rational terms. While I certainly want violent criminals locked up, a very large contingent of the prison population is there for not paying child support, possession (not sale) of marijuana, etc. It also disturbs me that companies like Wackenhunt run industries inside prison walls, using inmate labor. With a looming, widespread student loan default by young Millennials a real possibility, would you be surprised to hear calls for jailing them until they pay up for an education that failed them?

    • It is a very troubling situation, to be sure. I do not like leading the world in incarcerations.

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