Monday, May 04, 2009

Why Aren't You in Jail?

Are we really becoming this short-sighted? Debtors' prisons are back:
Edwina Nowlin, a poor Michigan resident, was ordered to reimburse a juvenile detention center $104 a month for holding her 16-year-old son. When she explained to the court that she could not afford to pay, Ms. Nowlin was sent to prison. The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, which helped get her out last week after she spent 28 days behind bars, says it is seeing more people being sent to jail because they cannot make various court-ordered payments. That is both barbaric and unconstitutional.

In 1970, the Supreme Court ruled that it violates equal protection to keep inmates in prison extra time because they are too poor to pay a fine or court costs. More recently, the court ruled that a state generally cannot revoke a defendant’s probation and imprison him for failing to pay a fine if he is unable to do so.
This is another example of our nation repeating history because we didn't learn the lesson the first time. Of course, the major flaw of this system is that by putting indebted people in prison, society prevents them from contributing their labor and thus makes it harder for them to pay it off and thus makes it harder for creditors to recoup their investment.

And of course, you won't see the Wall Street types going to jail even though the banks they run seem hopelessly insolvent: "The International Monetary Fund has estimated that U.S. banks will require $275 billion to $500 billion in additional capital."

It's a case of one set of rules for rich people, and another set of rules for the rest of us. It's a bit like drug prohibition. We have over half a million drug offenders incarcerated, and yet look at all the politicians who can admit to drug use and still go free.

So when we get around to rethinking these laws and prison terms regarding debt, drugs, and other crazy stuff, one question we should each ask ourselves is "self, why am I not in jail too?"


Rebekka Pierre said...

Also, keeping people in prison is big business. Prison is an industry, so they're always looking for more bodies to fill them up.

Kristen said...

Yes, the prison-industrial complex is a big issue, along with a public faith in a system that doesn't always work.