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Las Vegas Criminal Defense

The “Debt To Prison” Pipeline


A debtor’s prison is fictional these days, right? Something from older, crueler times that we did away with long ago in this country? While that’s what many Americans may believe, the truth is that people in the United States face prison due to unpaid debt at alarming rates today, in the enlightened era of the 21st century.

The History of Debtor’s Prisons

 Jails in England were filled with debtors at one time—people who were unable to pay bills and were ultimately literally branded as serial debtors.  In fact, over half of all people behind bars there had earned a spot due to unpaid bills.

When America was colonized, many of the debtors were shipped here to work as indentured servants, slowly working to pay off the debt.  Landowners were happy to have laborers on their tobacco and cotton fields, and in exchange were only required to feed and house them.

The Abolishment of Debtors’ Prisons

For a couple of hundred years in America, from the 1600s to the 1800s, jails were built to house debtors whose bills had been run up here. Facilities were uncomfortable by design, thinking it would motivate debtors to pay up. By 1983 the Supreme Court banned the practice, eliminating debtors’ prisons. But you can still be jailed due to money matters in this country.

The Debtor’s Pipeline 

Americans typically hold about $6,000 in credit card debt.  That’s not a problem—unless the debt is turned over to a collection agency–which has happened to one in three Americans.  In that case, debt is often turned into a lawsuit.  And unfair as it is, only about two percent of debtors are represented by an attorney in these cases.  Oftentimes they don’t even know about the case, and miss court altogether, giving the win to the debt collector automatically.  It’s no wonder they win 95 out of 100 cases.

From there, judges often order a post-judgment examination, which debtors tend to miss, as well.  That can result in an arrest warrant. Frequently additional fees are tacked on the original debt, making prisoners even further in debt. As they are probationed, more fees add up for drug testing and the like. Jobs are lost, and the debts mount. Cash bail requirements mean many sit in a cell awaiting adjudication on their cases. Upon release, their record makes them undesirable for better jobs, meaning they accrue more debt.

And guess who winds up serving more jail time for debt than any other group?  Black Americans.  This makes sense considering they have about one-tenth the wealth of whites.

And Justice for All? 

How is such a system defensible? It certainly does not achieve the outcomes desired by a free and just society. If you are facing time behind bars due to financial issues, you deserve a legal defense. At Lobo Law, our Las Vegas criminal lawyers are dedicated to achieving the best possible outcomes for you.  Schedule a confidential consultation in our office today.



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