In 2011, Robin Sanders was driving home when she saw the blue and red lights flashing behind her. She knew she had not fixed her muffler, and believed that was why she was being pulled over. She thought she might get a ticket.
Instead, Sanders, who lives in Illinois, was arrested and taken to jail.
As she was booked and processed, she learned that she had been jailed because she owed debt — $730 to be precise, related to an unpaid medical bill. Unbeknownst to her, a collection agency had filed a lawsuit against her, and, having never received the notice instructing her to appear, she had missed her date in court.
Debra Shoemaker Ford, a citizen of Harpersville, Ala., spent seven weeks in the county jail without ever appearing in court. Her crime was a failure to pay the monthly fees mailed to her by a private probation company, called Judicial Correction Services. She was on probation because of a traffic violation.
In Benton County, Wash., a quarter of those in jail are there because they owe fines and fees. And in Ferguson, Mo., simmering anger with the police and court system has given rise to a pair of lawsuits aimed at the local practice of imprisoning indigent debtors.
The American tradition of debtors’ imprisonment seems to be alive and well. But how could that be? Jailing the indigent for their failure to meet contractual obligations was considered primitive by ancient Greek andRoman politicians, and remains illegal and unheard of in most developed countries. Under the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, the practice is listed as a civil-rights violation.
In the United States, debtors’ prisons were banned under federal law in 1833. A century and a half later, in 1983, the Supreme Court affirmed that incarcerating indigent debtors was unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection clause. Yet, citizens like Sanders and Ford are, to this day, routinely jailed after failing to repay debt. Though de juredebtors’ prisons are a thing of the past, de facto debtors’ imprisonment is not. So what do we really know about modern-day debtors’ imprisonment –how it returned, when, and where? Below, seven frequently asked questions about the history and abolition of debtors’ imprisonment, and its UNDER-THE-RADAR1 second act….