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Are debtors’ prisons still in effect in America?

If you are contacted by a bill collector, you may be told that you can go to jail for not paying your debts. However, as we have discussed in previous posts, this claim is false and violates the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. However, is it possible for you or other Fort Lauderdale residents to be arrested over unpaid court fees and legal fines associated with a criminal charge?

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, this has happened to many people across the country who are dealing with fines associated with minor crimes. The infractions can be as simple as a traffic charge or bouncing a check. For example, if you wrote a bad check for a small amount years ago and failed to pay the resulting fees, you might have had legal fines added on. If those fines in turn were not paid, officers might have shown up at your door to take you to jail.

This practice, claims the ACLU and other civil rights advocates, is essentially a debtors’ prison for those who committed minor infractions but are unable to repay the penalties. In addition, many who spend time in jail over unpaid legal fines are financially disadvantaged, which may unfairly discriminate against the poor. Many people report being repeatedly jailed over thousands of dollars in legal fines, which originally stemmed from a trivial amount. You could find yourself going to jail over a $10 bad check or a $30 parking ticket that, over the years, ballooned through legal fees and late penalties to an amount you are unable to deal with.

Additionally, many of these court processes do not give people a fair hearing to take into consideration their inability to pay and to negotiate affordable payment plans or alternative ways to make amends. You might, for example, attempt to pay what you can each month toward the legal fees, but face additional penalties or arrest if you miss a payment or are unable to make the minimum amount the court wants you to pay. Creating a debtors’ prison over legal fines may violate your constitutional rights, claims the ACLU.

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