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Debtor's Prisons: If You Don't Pay, You Stay

These institutions were common up until the early 19 th century - James Wilson, who signed the Declaration of Independence, spent some time in debtor's prison while simultaneously serving on the United States Supreme Court. The theory was that, if faced with jail time, a debtor could scrape up the money needed to satisfy creditors. But the advent of bankruptcy laws in the mid nineteenth century largely ended debtor's prison, at least for non-criminal debts, such as overdue credit card bills, unpaid loans and so forth.

But, despite popular belief, these institutions are still perfectly legal in the United States and a few other countries in the world.

In the Golden State, an unpaid civil debt is often turned over to a debt-buyer. The debt-buyer may go to court and obtain a default judgment against the debtor, who is then imprisoned for failing to pay the judgment.

Traffic ticket fines are a much more common example. If you lack the money to pay the fine, the court may incarcerate you for a period of time to "work off" the debt. Or, if you are placed on probation, the payment plan may be handled by a private company. If you fail to pay, you may be placed in jail, even though you technically don't owe the county any money.

Now we know that this would probably take a pretty extreme situation. But the best way to avoid this situation is to avoid it altogether. An attorney practicing in Kern County can work directly with the judge and court, to come up with a way to deal with your outstanding traffic tickets that does not end with your arrest.