Editorial: Debt dispute gets out of hand

It was supposed to be a routine matter — a dispute over a repair bill that landed in small claims court. What was unexpected was that an individual in the case wound up being sentenced to 30 days in jail because he couldn’t pay $508 — an outcome that evokes images of Charles Dickens and the dreary debtors’ prisons he wrote about.

Yet this came out of a Hampshire County court, where Iheanyi Daniel Okoroafor, a 73-year-old retired mental health case manager from South Hadley, appeared before Judge Robert S. Murphy. Okoroafor was found in contempt of court and sentenced to jail time, though he would eventually be released once his daughter had paid the bill and court costs.

While many factors come into play here, we can’t say that this was a good day for our justice system.

After all, there was no such thing as a debtor’s prison here in Massachusetts — they were outlawed in the United States roughly 200 years ago. Instead, modern courts usually try to come to a solution that results in a person making payments toward what they owe.

Part of that, of course, is dependent on a determination by a judge that an individual can’t afford to pay.

During the hearing, Okoroafor told the judge that he didn’t have the money to pay the bill — and that he disputes the contention that the repairs to his furnace fixed the problem. He also told Murphy that he can’t afford an attorney. He then explained that after paying monthly bills, including medical ones for a wife who suffers from dementia and after tithing to his church with $200 from his $2,000 monthly state pension, he was left with little wiggle room.

However, a review of the audio tapes of the proceedings seems to indicate that Murphy felt that the tithing was not a necessary expense, and that therefore Okoroafor had the ability to pay.

Since an earlier order from another judge mandated Okoroafor to pay or appear with an attorney, Murphy may have thought he had no other course of action.

But a number of attorneys, including those who deal with bankruptcies, think that the judge did have other options, ones that did not including Okoroafor being taken off to jail.

We tend to agree.

While we are not absolving Okoroafor’s responsibility in this matter, especially in failing to appear in court for earlier hearings, there are better answers than sending the man to jail.

All of this reminds us of what Samuel Johnson, the English essayist, wrote in 1759 in a letter to Joseph Simpson about the different kinds of “justice” meted out to the rich and the poor: “Small debts are like small shot; they are rattling on every side and can scarcely be escaped without a wound: great debts are like cannon; of loud noise but little danger.”

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