Enable prisoners to work off their debts

Proposed changes to bankruptcy law are good news for people jailed for failing to pay debts.

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Sometimes, through no fault of their own - perhaps by losing a job or receiving unexpected bills - people end up owing more money than they can pay back. But, unless you have brought it on yourself by behaving recklessly or fraudulently, bankruptcy should not make you a criminal.

As we have noted on these pages before, UAE law is tough on people who bounce cheques or accumulate unpayable bills. Do it, and you will go to jail until you can settle the debt - and that could mean you languish behind bars longer than thief.

Prisons serve a necessary role in the community, not least by keeping criminals apart from the rest of us. Motivated inmates can learn a skill or acquire an education that will serve them well on the outside. But one thing you can't currently do in jail is earn money to pay off a debt.

Not everyone with unpaid bills goes to jail, however. Some flee the country before that happens. Either way, creditors don't get repaid.

Some good news has come to light following discussions between the attorney general of Dubai Courts and officers of the Indian Embassy, which has expressed concern about the high number - about 1,300 - of its nationals in UAE prisons for unpaid debt.

As The National reported yesterday, India's Ambassador MK Lokesh has said that there was already "some movement in the Government to make amendments to the bankruptcy laws". While the specifics are not yet available, this might allow prisoners to perform paid work and to use their earnings to pay off their debts.

This is surely a move in the right direction. If it means fewer people are in jail, society wins by not having to bear the cost of supporting them. Presumably the work the prisoners undertake will also have some benefit to the nation. There will be savings, too, and benefits for inmates who will be able to earn the chance for freedom.

None of this trivialises the offences of those who have broken the law, or changes the fact that people must be held accountable for their debts.

No one is advocating a "get out of jail free" card, just a measure that provides a light at the end of the tunnel for people with little or no hope. Prison is not a good way to deal with debt and, pending broad reforms of debt collection and bankruptcy laws, the proposal offers one solution.