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Criminal court practices may create a debtors’ prison

In centuries past, people across America would be imprisoned for failing to pay their debts. Fortunately, debtors’ prison is now illegal in Oregon and elsewhere. However, this does not stop unscrupulous debt collectors from telling debtors that they can be sent to prison for not paying a debt. While there is no such thing an official debtors’ prison these days, the activities of numerous courts across the country suggest that in some ways, debtors’ prisons are alive and well.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, many court systems penalize people for such minor infractions as traffic offenses and writing bad checks, by attaching court fees and legal fines to the offenses. If those involved are unable to repay the legal debt, they may be arrested and spend time in jail – essentially creating a debtors’ prison. Some report not being able to repay these costs after years of making payments and numerous arrests.

In one recent case, a cancer patient spent three months in jail for nonpayment of $3,054.51 he owed from fines associated with checks he had bounced several years ago. The Huffington Post reported that the man had written the checks for small amounts when he was first diagnosed with cancer and lost his job as a result. The total of the checks was a small amount, but over the years, legal fines and late fees had ballooned his cost to thousands of dollars. Civil rights advocates say that this system creates a cycle that results in financially disadvantaged people rotating in and out of jail if they are unable to pay the debts. Additionally, it is reported that the court system penalizes these people without a fair hearing to address their inability to pay and to come up with other ways of making restitution, such as performing community service.

The ACLU claims that this practice violates the constitutional rights of people who should be protected from debtors’ prison.

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