April 21, 2012 - How did breast cancer survivor Lisa Lindsay end up behind bars? She didn't pay a medical bill -- one the Herrin, Ill., teaching assistant was told she didn't owe. "She got a $280 medical bill in error and was told she didn't have to pay it," The Associated Press reports. "But the bill was turned over to a collection agency, and eventually state troopers showed up at her home and took her to jail in handcuffs."
Although the U.S. abolished debtors' prisons in the 1830s, more than a third of U.S. states allow the police to haul people in who don't pay all manner of debts, from bills for health care services to credit card and auto loans. In parts of Illinois, debt collectors commonly use publicly funded courts, sheriff's deputies, and country jails to pressure people who owe even small amounts to pay up, according to the AP.
The Return Of Debtor’s Prisons: Thousands Of Americans Jailed For Not Paying Their BillsBy Marie Diamond on Dec 13, 2011 at 5:20 pm
Federal imprisonment for unpaid debt has been illegal in the U.S. since 1833. It’s a practice people associate more with the age of Dickens than modern-day America. But as more Americans struggle to pay their bills in the wake of the recession, collection agencies are using harsher methods to get their money, ushering in the return of debtor’s prisons.
NPR reports that it’s becoming increasingly common for people to serve jail time as a result of their debt. Because of “ sloppy, incomplete or even false documentation,” many borrowers facing jail time don’t even know they’re being sued by creditors:
- Take, for example, what happened to Robin Sanders in Illinois. She was driving home when an officer pulled her over for having a loud muffler. But instead of sending her off with a warning, the officer arrested Sanders, and she was taken right to jail.
- “That’s when I found out [that] I had a warrant for failure to appear in Macoupin County. And I didn’t know what it was about.” Sanders owed $730 on a medical bill. She says she didn’t even know a collection agency had filed a lawsuit against her. [...]
- A company will often sell off its debt to a collection agency, generally called a creditor. That creditor files a lawsuit against the debtor requiring a court appearance. A notice to appear in court is supposed to be given to the debtor. If they fail to show up, a warrant is issued for their arrest.
Robert Vee Discovers that Collections Agencies Have Created a New Debtors Prison -- with Government HelpBy Cory Zurowski in Douchebags, fraud
Tuesday, July 13, 2010 at 11:00 am
Robert Vee, a highway construction worker from Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, got boned not once but twice. If it wasn't bad enough that late last winter he was tossed into a local county clink -- the result of missing a court hearing over an unpaid credit card...
The truly below-the-belt shot came when he found out his bail was the exact amount he owed the creditor: $1,875.06. It was not coincidence.
In various parts of the country, collections agencies -- fueled by a sideways economy and a growing industry that buys bad debt -- are hijacking law enforcement and the legal system to arrest and imprison people who have walked on unpaid bills, ranging from auto loans to credit cards to outstanding medical tolls.
In a multiplying number of cases, judges set the debtor's at exactly what they owe the creditors. And more often than not, if friends or family do come up with the bail money, they'll likely never see it again.
It will end up with the creditor who initiated the collection process and will ask the court for the bail amount.
Debtor’s Prison for Failure to Pay for Your Own Trialby Alex Tabarrok on April 18, 2012 at 7:38 am
Debtor’s prisons are supposed to be illegal in the United States but today poor people who fail to pay even small criminal justice fees are routinely being imprisoned. The problem has gotten worse recently because strapped states have dramatically increased the number of criminal justice fees. In Pennsylvania, for example, the criminal court charges for police transport, sheriff costs, state court costs, postage, and “judgment.” Many of these charges are not for any direct costs imposed by the criminal but have been added as revenue enhancers. A $5 fee, for example, supports the County Probation Officers’ Firearms Training Fund, an $8 fee supports the Judicial Computer Project, a $250 fee goes to the DNA Detection Fund. Convicted criminals may face dozens of fees (not including fines and restitution) totaling a substantial burden for people of limited means. Fees do not end outside the courtroom. Jailed criminals can be charged for room and board and for telephone use, haircuts, drug tests, transportation, booking, and medical co-pays. In Arizona, visitors to a prison are now charged a $25 maintenance fee. In PA in order to get parole there is a mandatory charge of $60. While on parole, defendants may be further assessed counseling, testing and other fees. Interest builds unpaid fees larger and larger. In Washington state unpaid legal debt accrues at an interest rate of 12%. As a result, the median person convicted in WA sees their criminal justice debt grow larger over time.
Many states are now even charging the accused to apply for and use a public defender! As a result, some defendants are discouraged from exercising their rights to an attorney.
Debtors' Prison Legal In More Than One-Third Of U.S. States
The Huffington Post Jillian Berman
First Posted: 11/22/11
Not paying off debts can eventually land you in jail -- at least in a sizable minority of U.S. states.
Borrowers who can't or don't pay their debts can be sent to jail in more than one-third of states, the Wall Street Journal reports. Judges may issue a warrant when a borrower either misses court ordered payments or doesn't show up in court after being sued for payments on outstanding debt. Though there are no national statistics on the practice of jailing debtors, a WSJ analysis found that judges have issued more than 5,000 debt-related warrants since the beginning of 2010.
As high joblessness, slow wage growth and plummeting home values push more Americans into debt, the aftermath of the recession also makes it increasingly difficult for consumers to pay it back, and the collectors of that debt are getting more aggressive as a result.
Some states are attempting to rein in the practice of putting borrowers in jail, even as the number of borrowers threatened with arrest has surged since the financial crisis, according to a separate WSJreport. Washington state's House of Representatives voted unanamously in March to require debt collection companies to provide proof that borrowers had been notified about lawsuits before judges could issue an arrest warrant.
March 16, 2011, 6:15 p.m. ET
Welcome to Debtors' Prison, 2011 Edition
PAY UP, OR LOCKED UP: Jeffrey Stearns, of Indiana, spent two nights in jail over a $4,024.88 debt.
Some lawmakers, judges and regulators are trying to rein in the U.S. debt-collection industry's use of arrest warrants to recoup money owed by borrowers who are behind on credit-card payments, auto loans and other bills.
More than a third of all U.S. states allow borrowers who can't or won't pay to be jailed. Judges have signed off on more than 5,000 such warrants since the start of 2010 in nine counties with a total population of 13.6 million people, according to a tally by The Wall Street Journal of filings in those counties. Nationwide figures aren't known because many courts don't keep track of warrants by alleged offense. In interviews, 20 judges across the nation said the number of borrowers threatened with arrest in their courtrooms has surged since the financial crisis began.
The backlash is a reaction to sloppy, incomplete or even false documentation that can result in borrowers having no idea before being locked up that they were sued to collect an outstanding debt. The debt-collection industry says such errors are extremely rare, adding that warrants usually are sought only after all other efforts to persuade borrowers to pay have failed.
WSJ BLOGSMarch 17, 2011, 9:17 AM
On the Rise of Debtor’s Prison: ‘The Scariest Thing That Ever Happened to Me’
By Ashby Jones
Historic building of a Debtors Prison in Virginia
Thought debtors’ prisons were a thing of the past? A contrivance used to punish the penniless in the age of Dickens?
The WSJ’s Jessica Silver-Greenberg has a story Thursday on the return of the debtor’s prison in 21st Century America.
According to the story, more than a third of all U.S. states allow borrowers who can’t or won’t pay to be jailed. Judges have signed off on more than 5,000 such warrants since the start of 2010 in nine counties.
Illinois “Debtors Prison” Bill in Senate Committee Hearing Next WeekPatrick Lunsford April 20, 2012
A state bill that would directly address the practice of “body attachment” for debt-related judgments will be the focus of an Illinois Senate committee hearing next week having already unanimously passed that state’s House of Representatives.
The bill, HB 5434, would require subpoenas to appear to be served directly to a debtor’s person or home, rather than being mailed. It would also require that any arrest warrants issued for failing to appear to expire after a year, and it would return most bond money to the debtor, rather than allow it to be used to pay off the debt. Bonds would also be restricted to no more than $1,000.