Convict Leasing

In the years following the emancipation, slavery was far from vanquished. Southern whites, not to be swayed by the changes forced upon them, improvised. They created a system, legally protected of course, called convict leasing. Convict leasing was intended to be a way for criminals to repay their debts to society. Rather than sit in jail and cost the taxpayers money that was scarce during the "Reconstruction," convicts would be leased to private citizens and companies to do work. But, rather than earning a wage for themselves, the government would be earn the cost of labor, thus allowing society to be repaid for the debt owed it by the criminal.

In theory, this could have been a valid and interesting solution to the criminal justice problem during an economic crisis. In practice, the system was a travesty worse than slavery. Leased convicts almost never brought any revenue to the government. Private parties leasing these criminals would normally not be asked to pay for the labor costs. And, in any case, there was little or no penalty for the death of a convict. In slavery, a slave was at least a valued property. If a slave was killed, it cost money to replace him/her with another. But, in the convict leasing system, a laborer was cost-free. There was no investment required to replace him, so there was no incentive to maintain the human laborer with food, shelter, etc. Brutality and negligence reached new extremes, prompting the attitude that became the title of a text on this system: One dies, get another. Worse, the offenses and criminal justice practices that led to a citizen becoming a convict became increasingly ludicrous. While blacks were not the only ones targeted by convict leasing, they suffered from this system disproportionately. In any event, the result was a system in which people were literally worked to death. As with every other kind of economic exploitation in American economic history, legislation was required to end this practice.



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