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Mississippi System Likened to Modern Debtors' Prison

Marshall Project takes a critical look at state's court-ordered restitution program
By Newser Editors,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 10, 2020 5:14 PM CST
Updated Jan 12, 2020 10:20 AM CST

(Newser) – Debtors' prison may sound like a concept from another century. But the Marshall Project asserts that Mississippi is running a court-ordered restitution program that is essentially the same thing. The investigation found that judges sentence hundreds of people a year to one of four "restitution centers" around the state. There they must live while they work off court-ordered debts, including fees, fines, and restitution to victims. One big problem is that most of the workers have low-paying jobs, making their stays at the centers open-ended. And "centers" might be overstating things. One is described as a motel-turned-jail that is surrounded by razor wire. The residents sleep on prison-issued mattresses, eat the same food as inmates, and generally have the same restrictions.

"We don’t know of any other states that have a program quite like Mississippi's," says Sharon Brett of Harvard’s Criminal Justice Policy Program. The story by Anna Wolfe and Michelle Liu also includes this quote from Cliff Johnson of the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi. "Debtors' prisons are an effective way of collecting money—as is kidnapping. But there are constitutional, public policy and moral barriers to such a regime." The program has its defenders, including a judge who says it's better than sending people to regular prison. One woman who went through it isn't so sure. Annita Husband ended up escaping from her center. When caught, she went to prison for 10 months, about half as long as she would have spent at the center had she stayed and paid off the debt under its system. (Read the full story.)

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