I once languished in debtors prison. When I was about seventeen, I got strep throat something terrible. It got so bad I couldn’t swallow my own saliva without great pain. I was lying in my bed trying to recuperate when my father came to my door:
“Son, the police are here for you.”
“Huh? What for?” I croaked out.
“I don’t know. They say they have a bench warrant for your arrest.”
I got up and put on some clothes. Two officers were standing in the hallway.
“Hi. What’s this about?” I asked.
“Are you Charles Minkoff?” the lead officer asked.
“I go by Michael.”
“But your legal name is Charles M. Minkoff, Jr.?”
“We have a bench warrant here for you. We’re taking you in.”
This is when they put me in handcuffs. My dad intervened.
“Wait a second. He is very sick! What is this about? Why are you arresting him?”
“An unpaid ticket.”
“An unpaid ticket for what?”
“An expired tag.”
My father looked at me annoyed. I regularly let things like this slip through the cracks. My father had never woken up late. And he wouldn’t have paid this ticket either. Because he never would have gotten one in the first place. He paid his tags months before he needed to.
“Well. It doesn’t seem reasonable to take him to jail for that,” my dad said, his annoyance shifting from me to the officers.
“Sorry. If you want to talk about it, you’ll have to come in and pay his fine.”
“I’ll pay his fine. I will. You have my word. But will you leave him here? He is very sick.”
“No, sir. You can come in. We’ll be waiting.”
So they cuffed me, drove me into downtown Cumming (Forsyth County, Georgia) and put me in a holding cell with a drug dealer. Where I waited until my parents came and paid my ticket.
Whenever I tell anyone that story, most people are surprised. First, that I was so irresponsible, but mostly that police had nothing better to do. They didn’t. Police used to pull me over every week or so. They didn’t like the cut of my jib.
But it turns out, my experience is not unique. Debtors prison is coming back into style for exactly the same kinds of scenarios as the one I experienced. People can’t pay fines and fees, so they are put in jail until they pay them or do their time. Debtors prison never made any sense to me. How can a person pay a fee from jail (unless they have parents willing to pay it for them)? And doesn’t it cost the taxpayer money to jail people? So, bottom line, you’re probably losing money in the end.
Two police officers took two hours to pick me up, talk to my parents, drive back to county, put in my paperwork, etc. They got about $200 out of my parents. Was that worth it? Probably not.
It’s a waste of taxpayer resources, and it undermines the integrity of the justice system. The problem is it’s not actually much of a money-making proposition … to throw people in jail for fines and fees when they can’t afford it. If counties weren’t spending the money jailing people for not paying debts, they could be spending the money in other ways.
Or they could just not collect the money in the first place. Welcome to your police state. Debtors prison is just the beginning.