Sunday, April 7, 2013

Americans Are Being Thrown in Jail for Not Paying Their Debts

Here's a shocking article.  Every civilized country has ended the system of "debtors' prisons."  In the old days, if a person could not pay his/her debt, he/she was thrown in jail.

(By the way, debt is pronounced 'det' - the 'b' is silent.)

Also, when we talk about "jail" we often use the idiom - "to throw someone in jail."  So "throw" is the appropriate verb here.  i.e. A corrupt politician from New York was recently thrown in jail.  You could also say 'to send to jail.' He was sent to jail for various crimes.

Even though the concept of throwing people who owe money in jail is unconstitutional in the USA (the Constitution is the primary legal document for the USA and was created in 1789), judges are throwing people in jail in various states if they cannot pay certain debts.

The article:

Vocabulary to help you understand the article:

to flail - in this case, to flail means to perform weakly or badly.  If the economy is flailing, it is not working properly.

a debtor - someone who owes money

a prison - a place where people who have broken the law are placed so that they are no longer a threat to others in society.

to thrive - to do very well

traffic tickets - if you drive your car too fast, you might get a traffic ticket.  Traffic refers to the act of driving on a public road.

a relic - some object from the past which is no longer needed or wanted.

to abolish s/t - to get rid of something; to eliminate something

violating the Constitution - The Constitution is a document which was meant to protect the rights of American citizens.  If something violates the Constitution is is against the Constitution or is not supported by the Constitution.  If something is not supported by the Constitution, it is supposed to be illegal.

to incarcerate - to place in jail, or throw in jail.

a lock up - a place where prisoners are held.

roughly - in this case, roughly means "about" or approximately.

a fine - a punishment that requires a person to pay some money to the state.

to incur - to  receive

to stem from - to come from. A stem is the main part of a flower.

a conviction - if a person is found guilty of something, he/she is convicted of a crime.

driving under the influence - driving after a person has had too much alcohol.

other offenses - other crimes.

a correctional facility - a prison.

to outrun - to go faster than something else.

municipal - dealing with a city; something involving the city

a stint - a period of time

to criminalize poverty - to make it seem as if being poor is a crime.  If I cannot pay a bill because I am poor and they arrest me for this, they are treating me as a criminal just because I am poor.

to contravene - to violate, to go against

The Constitution's Equal Protection Clause - basically this means that a state cannot violate a US citizen's rights as established in the Constitution.

a surcharge - an extra charge.

a public defender - a free lawyer provided by the government.

to forgo s/t - to avoid doing something; to not do something

a fiscal shortfall - not having enough money

to replenish their coffers - this is a way of saying that the government needs to find ways to replenish (to add to) the money they have spent.  If you need to replenish your coffers, you have spent a lot of money and need to make money quickly..

drawing blood from a stone - this is something impossible.  You cannot get blood from a stone. So the author is saying that by trying to get money from poor people you are trying to do the impossible.

revenue - money

counsel - a lawyer

to derive from - to get from

willful non-payment - deliberately not paying; choosing to not pay

food stamps - certificates that allow people to get free food because they are too poor to earn their own food

the clink -  another term for a jail

The ACLU - The American Civil Liberties Union. This is an organization that tries to protect the rights of Americans.

rampant - all over the place.

a resurgence - a rebirth, or a coming again

a suspended license - if a person has been found guilty of a driving offense, his/her license might be suspended. That means the person cannot use his/her license.

the indigent - the poor

to foot the bill - to pay the bill

the tab - the bill

to accelerate a downward spiral - to drop toward the ground faster

Some judges have had enough - some judges are upset and will not tolerate this any more

to rebuke - to punish

a private probation company - a company that makes money from situations like this

to sanction something - to condone something; to say that something is acceptable or OK

an extortion racket - extortion is an illegal way to make people pay you money; a raket is an organized crime activity.

a critique - a criticism

to be exempt - if you are exempt, something does not apply to you

to relent - to give up, to stop trying to do something

scrutiny - if someone is under scrutiny, he is being watched very carefully
Yes, I'm the guy who wrote the very funny ESL book: New York City Sucks, But You'll Wanna Live Here Anyway.

If this page is useful to you, please buy the book (it's quite inexpensive and useful!!!!). If you don't have an e-reader, drop me a line at and I'll send you a free copy via Word file. Let me know whether you have Word 2010 or an earlier version.
Yes, I'm also the guy who created the scandal in Asia two years ago :P

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