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Prior to bankruptcy, there was debtors' prison - now it's back

It used to be that financially insolvent individuals were put into "debtors' prison" when they could not pay their bills. Luckily, that archaic system has gone by the wayside in favor of the more humane and dignified American bankruptcy program. Now, though, critics are decrying the actions of many states as de facto "debtors' prisons," where individuals are held until they can pay overdue court fines and fees.

Individuals who have suffered financial misfortune may find themselves facing legal fees for court costs. In some cases, it may be impossible to discharge those fees in a bankruptcy proceeding. As a consequence, some financially destitute individuals are facing jail time because they have overdue fines - even for minor infractions such as traffic violations.

Advocates from the American Civil Liberties Union have been staging a systematic protest against this practice, arguing that modern courts have no more right to imprison indigent debtors than the courts of old. Calling the efforts a "waste of taxpayer resources," representatives of that organization have been waging war against this approach to creditors' rights. The group has a point; although it might seem to make financial sense to incarcerate someone until they pay their legal fees, it ultimately ends up costing the state of Washington more than simply forgiving the penalties for indigent residents.

States throughout the nation, however, are turning to the concept of "debtors' prison" because of financial shortfalls that are affecting their tax base. Further, municipalities are increasing fees for violations as simple as speeding tickets; as a consequence, more debtors are being hauled into jail for failing to pay. Those individuals face overwhelming fees and fines, but they are also suffering under ballooning interest that has accumulated on unpaid court costs.

There are many reasons that a debtor might decide to file for bankruptcy; overdue court costs may be included in that list. Indigent individuals should not be punished by being thrown in jail for their inability to pay. Rather, they deserve the same access to bankruptcy protection as that afforded to individuals within all socioeconomic groups. Washington bankruptcy attorneys can provide additional information for those who are facing overwhelming court costs that are straining their finances.

Source: Fox News, "Local courts reviving 'debtors' prison' for overdue fines, fees" Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, Dec. 28, 2013

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