Unjust Debts

How Our Bankruptcy System Makes America More Unequal

A groundbreaking look at the hidden role of bankruptcy in perpetuating inequality in America, from an expert in the field

Unjust Debts throws open the doors and windows to the bankruptcy system so readers can see for themselves how this law works and doesn’t work for the real people it so profoundly affects.” —Beth Macy, New York Times bestselling author of Dopesick and Raising Lazarus

Bankruptcy is the busiest federal court in America. In theory, bankruptcy in America exists to cancel or restructure debts for people and companies that have way too many—a safety valve designed to provide a mechanism for restarting lives and businesses when things go wrong financially.

In this brilliant and paradigm-shifting book, legal scholar Melissa B. Jacoby shows how bankruptcy has also become an escape hatch for powerful individuals, corporations, and governments, contributing in unseen and poorly understood ways to race, gender, and class inequality in America. When cities go bankrupt, for example, police unions enjoy added leverage while police brutality victims are denied a seat at the negotiating table; the system is more forgiving of civil rights abuses than of the parking tickets disproportionately distributed in African American neighborhoods. Across a broad range of crucial issues, Unjust Debts reveals the hidden mechanisms by which bankruptcy impacts everything from sexual harassment to health care, police violence to employment discrimination, and the opioid crisis to gun violence.

In the tradition of Matthew Desmond’s groundbreaking Evicted, Unjust Debts is a riveting and original work of accessible scholarship with huge implications for ordinary people and will set the terms of debate for this vital subject.


“Melissa Jacoby’s Unjust Debts takes on the gross inequality that victims face every day in mass tort cases. If we can’t grasp the magnitude of the problem, we’ll never be able to fix it. The American bankruptcy system is fundamentally broken and every policymaker in America should be reading this book.”
—Ryan Hampton, addiction recovery advocate and bestselling author of American Fix and Unsettled

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