As if out of a Charles Dickens novel, people struggling to pay overdue fines and fees associated with court costs for even the simplest traffic infractions are being thrown in jail across the United States.

Critics are calling the practice the new “debtors’ prison” — referring to the jails that flourished in the U.S. and Western Europe over 150 years ago. Before the time of bankruptcy laws and social safety nets, poor folks and ruined business owners were locked up until their debts were paid off.

Reforms eventually outlawed the practice. But groups like the Brennan Center for Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union say it’s been reborn in local courts which may not be aware it’s against the law to send indigent people to jail over unpaid fines and fees — or they just haven’t been called on it until now.

Advocates are trying to convince courts that aside from the legal questions surrounding the practice, it is disproportionately jailing poor people and doesn’t even boost government revenues — in fact, governments lose money in the process.

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