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Debtors' Prisons Old and New--Skeel

Debtors’ prisons seem to be back in the news. Last week’s New Yorker included an interesting article about debtors’ prisons in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century America (a link to the abstract is here). Decreasingly few states allowed imprisonment for debt by the mid nineteenth century, but debtors’ prisons weren’t abolished altogether until the Thirteenth Amendment was passed after the Civil War. Some commentators have argued that the 2005 amendments to the bankruptcy laws, which increased the costs and hassles of filing for bankruptcy, violate the Thirteenth Amendment. This is rather far fetched, but a recent practice in Florida seems a much closer call. A New York Times story reported that Florida courts have been throwing criminal defendants in jail if they fail to pay their court fees. Although this may not be imprisonment for debt, it seems awfully close.

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