A Christmas Carol

Stave One

The Progressive was dead: to begin with.  There is no doubt whatever about that.  The register of his burial was signed on November fourth by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner.  The Conservative signed it.  This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come from the story I am about to relate. (Dickens, 1843, p. 1) 

In her biography of Charles Dickens, Claire Tomalin observes that the story of his cold-hearted miser, Scrooge, is a parable for the condition of the working class 1843. During that year of the industrial revolution, the first bored underwater tunnel is built, “The Economist” begins publication and Ada Lovelace writes the first computer program for the Babbage Engine.  Then as now, however, the poor and unemployed are considered a lazy lot and a burden to the “makers” in society.  As we first meet Scrooge, he is approached by two “Progressive” gentlemen who are attempting to create a fund to help the poor and destitute.  To them he utters the now (in)famous lines “Are there no prisons … are there no Workhouses … the treadmill and poor law are in full vigor?”  These are references to the general practice in this era to imprison or indenture debtors for failure or inability to repay.  The poor laws and debtors’ prison were generally abolished by the end of the 19th century but ever-creative States in the U.S. have used legal chicanery to effectively reincarnate them.  Debt collectors in Missouri, Illinois, Alabama and other states are using these loopholes to jail the poor who cannot legitimately pay their debts.

First, explains St. Louis Post-Dispatch[1], the creditor gets a judgment in civil court that a debtor hasn't paid a sum that he owes. Then, the debtor is summoned to court for an "examination": a review of their financial assets.  If the debtor fails to show up for the examination -- as often happens in such cases -- the creditor can ask for a "body attachment" -- essentially, a warrant for the debtor's arrest.  At that point, the police can haul the debtor in and jail them until there is a court hearing, or until they pay the bond.  No coincidence, the bond is usually set at the amount of the original debt.  As the Dispatch notes:

"Debtors are sometimes summoned to court repeatedly, increasing chances that they'll miss a date and be arrested.  Critics note that judges often set the debtor's release bond at the amount of the debt and turn the bond money over to the creditor -- essentially turning publicly financed police and court employees into private debt collectors for predatory lenders."

Marley’s ghost, nevertheless,  may have been active.  In Illinois, Gov. Pat Quinn signed a new law restricting body attachments for civil debt.   In New Jersey, bill S-946/A-1910 was signed in August and passed by the voters in November.  This bill allows for non-monetary options rather than jail time to be applied to minor, non-violent offenses where the defendant does not have the ability to pay.

 In St. Louis County, MI, the practice, however, is undeterred and extended to exploit excessive collection of revenue from “predatory traffic tickets” creating an endless treadmill of jail time for minorities guilty of driving while black.  But, the events in Furguson, MI have shed a light on this practice, spurring Missouri Attn. Gen. Chris Koster to file lawsuits against 13 St. Louis Co. municipalities.

The ghosts of past, present and future may also have appeared to both Republicans and Democrats in Congress where there is clear bipartisan support for general prison reform.

“A coalition of unlikely allies has coalesced in recent months to advance criminal justice reform. These strange bedfellows -- from liberal Democrats such as Sen. Dick Durbin to tea party darlings such as Sen. Mike Lee, from the NAACP to Americans for Tax Reform -- are all proposing reductions in mandatory minimum sentences.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's calls for such reductions have been cheered by some of the same Republicans who otherwise want to impeach him. In Texas, a conservative group called Right on Crime has led the way on prison and sentencing reform -- earning plaudits from, among others, California progressives.” [2]

We must keep the pressure on our legislators to reduce and remove incentives for states and municipalities to view fines as a major surreptitious revenue stream couched in an Orwellian concept of deterrence.  Additionally, we must collectively rebuke the for profit “prison factory” mentality in our courts.  If we do this, maybe we will be worthy of Tiny Tim’s wish “God Bless us, everyone.”

 



[1] http://www.stltoday.com/business/local/payday-lenders-use-courts-to-create-modern-debtor-s-prison/article_f56ca6aa-e880-11e1-b154-0019bb30f31a.html

[2] http://www.cnn.com/2014/03/19/opinion/liu-prison-reform/index.html

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