Debtors' Prison: It lives in the 21st Century

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Today we’re kicking off our series, “The Color of Money,” in an effort to examine how the economic downturn is affecting minorities. We’re starting the conversation with a look at modern day debtors’ prison—a 19th century relic that is alive and well in parts of 21st century America. While imprisonment for debt was officially abolished in the 1800s, for Edwina Nowlin, it is a harsh reality. Her teenage son was kept in prison until she could come up with the funds to pay the court-ordered $104/month fee. When she couldn't pay, she was sent to jail for 30 days. It took a lawsuit by the ACLU of Michigan to get her out.

With unemployment rates higher among African Americans and Hispanics, and the median income about $20,000 lower than it is for whites, these groups run a greater risk of falling into debt and bearing the consequences. Joining us to talk about these penalties and the rise of debtors' prisons is Stephen Bright. He’s the president and senior counsel of the Southern Center for Human Rights. He also teaches at Yale and Georgetown Law School .


Stephen Bright

Hosted by:

Todd Zwillich

Comments [2]

Bruce F.

Sounds like the judge was more interested in getting the cash.

Apr. 16 2009 12:14 PM

This issue is so real! I was in traffic court where a man asked for jail time instead of having to pay a $180 ticket for failure to provide insurance documents. (He had insurance, just not the proof) The guy was unemployed and was living with a friend - he literally had no money. Judge told him to go work out a payment plan instead. I talked to him while standing in line at the cashier. He said no matter what payment plan he worked out, he wouldn't be able to pay it, and he would eventually go to jail over it anyway.

Final note - NJ law allows a Judge to waive the fine if the defendant provides proof of insurance in court. (Which this guy had) The Judge declined to do so. Some justice.

Apr. 14 2009 10:06 AM

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