Debtor's Prison Redux - A Return to the Nineteenth Century
Sitting in court waiting for my case to be called, I watch as a young man in an orange jump suit is escorted the defendant’s table. His hands are bound by stainless steel cuffs and fixed to a chain encircling his waist. He keeps his hands close together, almost as if in prayer, to keep the metal from chaffing. He shuffles toward the table in tiny steps because his feet, too, are bound by chains—a measure no doubt thought necessary to prevent him from fleeing on foot from the grasp of the deputy sheriff. The deputy appears attentive to his task, but uninvolved in the young man’s plight. The young man stands nervously, waiting for the judge to speak.
Is this some dangerous hardened criminal I am seeing, a violent robber, a rapist, a murderer, perhaps? But no, there is no press here, no gaggle of reporters scratching furiously on their pads, no klieg lights, no cameras, all of which surely would accompany such heinous conduct. What terrible crime has this young man committed? I, too, now find myself anxious to hear what the judge has to say.
Listening to the judge review his case, I soon learn this is no hardened criminal. Hard on his luck, maybe, but not exactly the next Charles Manson. The young man is in court for a motor vehicle violation. Apparently, he was stopped for exceeding the speed limit and couldn’t pay his fine. A review of his record disclosed he had several past violations with overdue fines. The judge informed the young man that he was going to spend the next 30 days in jail to “work off” his unpaid fines. As the judge began to question him, it became apparent that the young man was unemployed, without substantial skills or education, and unable to pay his fines.
As I watched this scene unfold, I wondered to myself: When was it, exactly, that New Hampshire decided to bring back debtor’s prison as a judicial remedy, and why is this thought to be an idea whose time has come? Or should I say, whose time has come back? Didn’t we as a society decide this 19th century practice was cruel, discriminatory and ineffective? What is accomplished by this arcane practice? How does society benefit from it and what message does it impart to our young man?
There was a time when those who could not afford to pay their fines were allowed to make arrangements with the clerk’s office to make payments. But the administrative judge of our District Courts has issued an edict ordering our local judges to put people in jail who can’t afford to pay their entire fine all at once. Apparently, processing time payments is a burden on the clerk’s office and the state isn’t getting its money fast enough. Of course, the irony is that taking people who can’t pay their fines and putting them in jail costs the state money, as the state has to pay to house, feed and, if necessary, treat those it incarcerates.
The scenario described above is not an isolated incident. Unfortunately, what I watched transpire in that courtroom is an all too common occurrence. It is repeated hundreds of times a week in courts all over New Hampshire. On a daily basis, judges are sending people to jail for no other reason than they are poor, unemployed and unable to pay their fine.
Debtor’s prison didn’t work so well in the 19th century; it’s working no better in the 21st.
This article first appeared in The Wire on February 13, 2009.