Profile America: End of Debtors’ Prison

Sunday, December 11 — Throughout history, debt had been a criminal offense, with penalties ranging from enslavement to mutilation. In Colonial America, some debtors were branded or whipped in public, but most were thrown in jail — debt being the only crime for which long-term imprisonment was common. But this month in 1821, Kentucky became the first state to abolish debtors’ prison. The nation followed with a federal ban in 1832. Americans are fortunate in the more forgiving attitudes toward debt, encouraged by our near universal use of credit. Shortly after the year 2000, nearly three-fourths of U.S. households were indebted. That figure has sunk to 69 percent recently, although at the same time the median amount of household debt increased from $50,971 to $70,000 in constant 2011 dollars.

You can find more facts about America’s people, places and economy, from the American Community Survey, here.

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