Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect $200. Go Straight to Jail.

by Chris Markham. 0 Comments

Admit it – we all have some debt rolling around in our lives. Some of us have more than others to be sure. But if you have a house, a car, an education, a couple of credit card or kids, then, chances are, you’ve borrowed some money and have to make some monthly payments.
In this day and age, having just a small amount of debt is actually a badge of honor. Most people (at least the ones I happen to encounter) are either on the edge of their debt consuming them, or they have already been consumed. The rates of bankruptcy filings bear this out. Sure the rates of people filing for BK have been higher; they have also been lower, and the steady stream of filings gives us an indicator of either the strength of the economy, the cost of living, or the issues and difficulties people are having just to get to survival.
Before I go any further, I would like to make it clear that filing for BK is not a panacea; it is for those that truly and irrevocably have no other option to consider. It is not something anyone should take lightly. Sure, the treatment of people who file has gotten much better over the years in a number of different ways – they’re no longer considered pariahs in their communities; they can have a reasonably repaired credit history within three to four years (instead of the traditional eight years to never); and it doesn’t affect their employment as much as it used to (especially in this area where government clearance is the coin of the realm).
That said, the bankruptcy process, as it is set out in federal statutes and regulations, exists to give debtors a fresh start – they acknowledge the financial mistakes they made and work toward learning from those mistakes to not get into that sort of trouble again. Heck, it even says something like that on the federal bankruptcy courts Website. If it says it there, you know it must be true.
Now, most, if not all of the previous comments I’ve made thus far are based on the federal system. Keep that in mind as you read further.
Which is why a troubling new trend is developing in many local governments – the concept of debtor’s prisons. I’m sure we’ve all heard/read/watched media about these tragic institutions. It’s where people that couldn’t pay their debts were housed (read: imprisoned) until they paid everything up. It has a very twisted logic behind it – sure, not paying your debts deserves some sort of penance, but by locking the debtors away in a prison, you’re not giving them any fighting chance to pay off their debts. They weren’t earning any money in there, and, for the lucky ones, it operated as a sort of ransom situation – relatives would end up paying the debts to get the debtor released. But, in some instances, the debtor couldn’t pay the relatives back and could have very well ended up back in custody. For those that had no relatives that could bail them out, they died in custody and were buried in mass graves called “Potters Fields”. Happy endings all around, right?
The United States, for the most part, abolished debtor’s prisons a couple hundred years ago. In 1983, the Supreme Court officially outlawed them under the Fourteen Amendment, which provides for equal protection under the law. You can see the contradiction; if you’re poor, you aren’t offered the same protection under the law than if you’re wealthy. The Supreme Court’s interpretation here, in my opinion, is dead on, and, frankly, long overdue.
However, some areas of the country are throwing people in jail because they can’t pay court costs and fees. Yet other areas are setting bail out of reach for non-violent, minor offenders. Again, the same paradox is rearing its ugly head – these people are in trouble, they need to work to get out of trouble, but they can’t work because they’re in jail and making no money. This is not the American way and this is in direct contravention and contradiction of the United States Constitution.
It’s only a matter of time before we see the same thing in our own state and area. We must be vigilant and not let this happen here. Because as I said at the beginning of this column – we all have debts. And you may be next.

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