(MoneyWatch) Thousands of Americans are sent to jail not for committing a crime, but because they can’t afford to pay for traffic tickets, medical bills and court fees.

If that sounds like a debtors’ prison, a legal relic which was abolished in this country in the 1830s, that’s because it is. And courts and judges in states across the land are violating the Constitution by incarcerating people for being unable to pay such debts.

Ask Jack Dawley, 55, an unemployed man in Ohio who between 2007 and 2012 spent a total of 16 days in jail in a Huron County lock-up for failing to pay roughly $1,500 in legal fines he’d incurred in the 1990s. The fines stemmed from Dawley’s convictions for driving under the influence and other offenses. After his release from a Wisconsin correctional facility, Dawley, who admits he had struggled with drugs and alcohol, got clean. But if he put his substance problems behind him, Dawley’s couldn’t outrun his debts.

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