Debtors’ prisons were commonplace in the United States up until the mid-1800’s. In fact, several notable figures in the history of the United States served time in debtors’ prisons, such as Robert Morris, who signed the Declaration of Independence and served on the Supreme Court, and Henry “Lighthorse” Lee, the father of Robert E. Lee. But unfortunately, debtors’ prison is not something just for the history books—to some degree, it still happens today.
In 1983, the U.S. Supreme Court case of Bearden v. Georgia held that a person cannot be sent to jail simply because he or she is too poor to pay the court fines. The Court stated that a judge must first determine whether the person has the ability to pay but “willfully” fails to pay. The problem is that the Court did not fully define what “willfully” means. As a result, people across the country are still jailed for failing to pay court fines, simply because they are too poor to pay. A recent investigation by National Public Radio (“NPR”) (http://tinyurl.com/l478dol) determined that there are wide discrepancies in how judges treat these cases and that many people still go to jail. The NPR investigation uncovered the case of Stephen Papa, a homeless veteran of the Iraq war. He was arrested for climbing to the top of an abandoned building after drinking that day. He spent 22 days in jail, not because of what he did, but because he could not pay the court fines. When he showed up to court a month after his arrest to make a payment towards his restitution, he was only able to pay $25 rather than the required $50. But the judge thought he could have tried harder and put him in jail for three weeks.
Although it is not possible to go to debtors’ prison for failing to pay a credit card debt, for example—it is possible to go to jail for contempt. For example, if your credit card company sues you for failing to pay your credit card debt and you fail to appear at a required court hearing such as a deposition in aid of execution, the judge can issue a bench warrant for your arrest for contempt of court. Technically, this may not be debtors’ prison, but it can come pretty close.
In Maryland, it is also possible to be sent to jail for failing to pay child support. The courts are extremely serious about child support, and if you have the ability to pay, a judge could find that you are in contempt of court and incarcerate you for failing to obey a court order requiring you to pay child support. This, of course, can be counterproductive in many cases because it is not possible to work while in jail.
In serious situations like these, bankruptcy can be a useful tool. Although government fines and penalties and child support cannot be discharged in a bankruptcy case, they can be paid over a period of three to five years in a Chapter 13 bankruptcy. For example, if you are $10,000 behind in child support, that could be paid back in up to 60 installments over five years. That is a much better alternative than a modern-day debtors’ prison.
The attorneys at the law firm of Laura Margulies & Associates, LLC have assisted thousands of clients through the Chapter 13 bankruptcy process. Please call us for a consultation today. To learn more about our firm visit our web site at www.law-margulies.com.