Ariel Schochet, who has served eight stints behind bars in Bergen County [New Jersey], the so-called deadbeat dad roundups trap the men in a system they are never able to climb out of. “We aren’t supposed to have debtor’s prisons in this country anymore, but that’s essentially what this has turned into,” said Schochet, who built up a $278,000 debt to his ex-wife after losing his job on Wall Street.
Charles Dickens wrote extensively about debtors prisons, having been through this tribulation as a child during his fathers imprisonment for debt in Marshalsea prison in 1824, but even during his lifetime the closure of debtors prisons and the introduction of less punitive bankruptcy and insolvency proceedings appeared to turn the tide back, but it is a tide that has ebbed and flowed both ways over the centuries.
This was nowhere more true than in the United States where bankruptcy laws were enacted in 1800, repealed in 1803, enacted again in 1841, repealed again in 1843, enacted yet again in 1867 and repealed yet again in 1878 – thus the current laws may just be an extraordinarily long hiatus between repeals.
The first turning of the tide was about 600 BC Seisachtheia (Greek: σεισάχθεια) or “relief of burdens” under Solon of Athens. This came about due to the combination of the use of debt bondage as security on loans and an early economic crisis, with the result that so many Athenian citizens were enslaved that Solon had no option but to forgive the debts and outlaw the practice or see Athens collapse.
The second turning of the tide was more on moral grounds than economic ones when in 326 BC a rather handsome boy called Gaius Publilius was used as security against his fathers loans but fell into debt bondage when his father defaulted (or perhaps died), regardless, the holder of the debt was the corrupt and lascivious Lucius Papirius, who wanted more of the boys ‘services’ than were strictly covered by the nominal claim of debt bondage. When the boy refused his sexual advances he was lashed, but managed to escape into the street. The outcry of the Roman mob against the boys treatment was such that the Senate was recalled and outlawed the particular form of debt bondage that poor Publilius was enslaved under.
Backwards and forwards through the medieval era, the renaissance and finally the 19th Century reforms introducing modern bankruptcy and insolvency proceedings up to the present day.
In most modern Western democracies debt bondage is either unconstitutional (for those countries possessing a constitution) or against basic laws and / or human rights legislation.
The same is true in the US of course, which seems a peculiar state of affairs, but those repeatedly imprisoned for debt (usually alimony, child support or a combination of the two) have neither the standing, nor the financial resources to mount a constitutional challenge to their predicament.
These are not deadbeat dads in the generally accepted sense (like Scot Young), but rather those who were earning significant incomes, but mainly through divorce, depression, illness and alcoholism have dropped through the ranks of American society from the upper middle classes to the indigent. Unfortunately, due to the “unforeseen consequences” of a piece of legislation from 1986, known as the Bradley Amendment, they are treated as being wilfully underemployed rather than victims of sour economic winds.
Because of the Bradley Amendment, people like Jorge Reynaldo, a former commodities broker who is now homeless and living in his truck is not seen as a victim of the current economic crisis, but (mostly due to the $168,000 arrears of alimony and child support) as being continually in contempt of ruling after ruling because of his inability to pay either the current payments or any of the backlog. Thus has led to Jorge spending most of the last year in jail.
There are hundreds and probably thousands like him, men who are unable to get the jobs necessary to stay ahead of unforgivable debts and thus doomed to spend the rest of their lives in and out of court rooms and in and out of prisons for no benefit to anyone save the state funded courts and associated legal staff.