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Debtors Prison: America has come full circle

Jessica Acee • Sep 17, 2012

Yesterday, on the one-year anniversary of the birth of Occupy Wall Street, the New York Times published an article about the more than 300 district attorneys offices across the nation conspiring with collections agencies to threaten and harass Americans. The collection agencies are allowed to send out threatening letters on the letterhead of the prosecutor in return for a kickback on part of the fee of a budgeting class that people are pressured into paying for with threats of jail time.

The more things change, the more they seem to stay the same.  Did you know that the state of Georgia was founded as a colony for British citizens in debtors’ prisons?  In 1733, King George freed 35 families from their debts and gave them passage to start the last American colony, Georgia, as a buffer between the British Carolinas and Spanish Florida.

Nearly a hundred years earlier, in 1641, over 10,000 British citizens were imprisoned in private jails for as long as it took them to pay off their debts – sometimes they never could.  Many brought their families with them so the number is much higher than 10,000.  American founding fathers, two of which actually spent time in American prisons for unpaid debts, did not want to saddle a new nation with this burden.  Some say this was one grievance that helped spark the American Revolution.

It took over 50 years but eventually the United States abolished federal imprisonment for unpaid debts, and most states outlawed the practice in the 1830’s.  Sadly, much has changed since then.  Just last year, the Wall Street Journal reported that, “More than a third of all U.S. states allow borrowers who can’t or won’t pay to be jailed.” It’s horrific to think that the government is sanctioning this kind of harassment and use of fear tactics, especially during a national recession.

The New York Times article sums it up like this.  “Debt collectors have come under fire for illegally menacing people behind on their bills with threats of jail. What makes this approach unusual is that the ultimatum comes with the imprimatur of law enforcement itself — though it is made before any prosecutor has determined a crime has been committed.” I haven’t heard any elected officials come out against this practice and it is clearly “government interference.” Where is the Tea Party when this type of harassment and abuse is uncovered?  To busy searching for the President’s birth certificate I suspect. Speaking of which, where is President Obama, with his new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau?

The great irony of this decade might turn out to be that not a single Wall Street executive or bank CEO sits in prison, while thousands of Americans are threatened with jail time, with some even serving time, for being unable to pay a bill during the greatest economic downturn since the great recession.  That’s just not right.

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