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The Return Of Debtor’s Prisons: Thousands Of Americans Jailed For Not Paying Their Bills

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.

More than a third of all states now allow borrowers who don’t pay their bills to be jailed, even when debtor’s prisons have been explicitly banned by state constitutions. A report by the American Civil Liberties Union found that people were imprisoned even when the cost of doing so exceeded the amount of debt they owed.

Sean Matthews, a homeless New Orleans construction worker, was incarcerated for five months for $498 of legal debt, while his jail time cost the city six times that much. Some debtors are even forced to pay for their jail time themselves, adding to their financial troubles.

Stories of surprise arrests for unpaid debt have been reported in states including Indiana, Tennessee and Washington. In Kansas City, one man ended up in jail after missing only a furniture payment. The Federal Trade Commission received more than 140,000 complaintsrelated to debt collection in 2010, and they’ve taken 10 debt collection agencies to court for their practices in the past three years.

Since the start of 2010, judges have signed off on more than 5,000 arrest warrants since in nine counties alone. Beverly Yang, a legal aid attorney, says many debtor’s — and judges — don’t know debtor’s rights, which results in the accused being intimidated into a pay agreement. She’s seen judges interrogate debtors about why they can’t pay more and whether they are trying hard enough to find a job.

Yang says some collection agencies are only too eager to use needlessly harsh tactics. “Whatever the creditors or the creditors’ attorneys can do to leverage some kind of payment, it will help their profits enormously because they have, literally, millions of these.” Debt collection is a lucrative business — the industry is set to grow 26 percent in the next three years.


Added: Dec-14-2011 Occurred On: Dec-14-2011
By: ccfc
In:
Other News
Tags: USA, Debt, Dickensian
Location: United States (load item map)
Views: 2949 | Comments: 49 | Votes: 3 | Favorites: 1 | Shared: 9 | Updates: 0 | Times used in channels: 2
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  • When are they going to lock up the bankers?lol

    Posted Dec-14-2011 By 

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  • this is nonsense...in order to be sued, you must be served by a servant of the court, meaning they have to physically hand you a notice that you have been sued. Notice of court appearance is by certified delivery only. A court proceeding can not be held with official record that you have been sufficiently notified.

    Posted Dec-14-2011 By 

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  • We need to start locking up politicans. They are the worst debtors of all.

    Posted Dec-14-2011 By 

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  • try not paying your taxes and see what happens

    Posted Dec-14-2011 By 

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  • I think this post is crossing some information and it's a bit misleading.
    These people were not arrested for "not paying" their debt, but rather for "not appearing" in court due to their debt. They could have showed up in court and had a judgement imposed on them, and then gone home and still not paid without the consequence of jail. Wage or bank account garnishment is a whole other battle.

    Posted Dec-14-2011 By 

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    • @zuluking
      I was in agreement with you but after a bit of research it appears that some states do in fact allow debtors to be jailed.

      Posted Dec-14-2011 By 

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    • @virago1776 -Thanks for the reply. I would be interested in some sourcing/links on your research.
      I think that it would be complete insanity to jail debtors in this economy and probably a catalyst for 3rd world style violence on our streets.

      Posted Dec-15-2011 By 

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    • @zuluking
      I just googled "debtor arrests."
      Lots of links.
      This is absolutely insane.
      Creditors can get judgments to garnish wages, get liens on debtor's property and so on.
      There is nothing beneficial in jailing anyone because of debts owed if they can afford to pay and no benefit in jailing them if they cannot.
      In Tennessee if a debtor doesn't answer a summons he just receives a judgement against him by default but certainly isn't arrested.
      Now, if a debtor is self employed or receiv More..

      Posted Dec-15-2011 By 

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  • Hell, I'd do time in replacement of my student loans. Say one week per 10k should be fair.

    Posted Dec-14-2011 By 

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  • Bout time we get rid of these credit card millionaires. So sick of bums.

    Posted Dec-14-2011 By 

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    • Comment of user 'Duckmanlivesagain' has been deleted by author (after account deletion)!
    • @Duckmanlivesagain I am thinking. I invest in property this is great for business.

      Posted Dec-14-2011 By 

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    • @Duckmanlivesagain Oh one other thing, if you cant afford it dont buy it. Simple logic.

      Posted Dec-14-2011 By 

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    • Comment of user 'Duckmanlivesagain' has been deleted by author (after account deletion)!
    • @Duckmanlivesagain Prepare for the worse and you'll be ready for it.

      I feel no empathy for a bunch of idiots living outside their means. People living on credit are worse than the OWS protesters.Talk about entitlement syndrome.

      Like i said if you cant afford it dont buy it.

      I know its to much to fathom for people who feel entitled to flat screen tvs nice cars and a big house but like i said if youre not spending your own money to gain these things youre borrowing it. If you dont pay it back y More..

      Posted Dec-15-2011 By 

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  • if you dont pay your taxes, you go to jail

    why should corporations not have the right to prosecute theft of goods and services, but your government can?

    Posted Dec-14-2011 By 

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    • @thinkslaughter The government doesn't like competition.

      Posted Dec-14-2011 By 

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    • @thinkslaughter ..the gov't doesn't send folks to jail for not paying taxes UNLESS they can easily afford to and refuse. That's not the same thing. The article was about putting people in jail who could not afford to pay. In jail, they can't earn money to pay down their debts - thats what your constitution is suppose to protect you from that kind trap.

      Posted Dec-14-2011 By 

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    • @thinkslaughter what about corporations stealing from the US taxpayers? why do we not have the right to prosecute the corps that do so?

      Posted Dec-14-2011 By 

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    • Comment of user 'timerider2009' has been deleted by author (after account deletion)!
  • Imprisonment for debt is regarded as an abuse in the United States. However, it is not unconstitutional and is actually legal in a third of the states. Moreover, you can be imprisoned for contempt in any state if you fail to follow a court order regarding property.

    Posted Dec-14-2011 By 

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  • Comment of user 'asmblur' has been deleted by author (after account deletion)!
    • Comment of user 'timerider2009' has been deleted by author (after account deletion)!
  • i had a woman jailed due to a debt. tracked her down for 4 years and kept bringing her to small claims court. FYI all a defendant has to do to avoid repayment, is show up to each court hearing (if you have proof they were served)...and its up to the claimant (me) to prove they can pay. Good luck with that. One time she didn't show up (funny what flat tires will do to ones busy schedule). They booked her in jail via a "body attachment" - she paid the next day.

    She told me later, she kn More..

    Posted Dec-14-2011 By 

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    • @cougar58 actually cougar I feel you are justified in this one.
      But as you said some folks simply cant afford it

      Posted Dec-14-2011 By 

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    • @cougar58
      You tracked her for four years. NPR probably didn't mention stuff like that did they? You forgave other's debts when they handled it like humans. The scum in question however, was trying to play the/your system.

      Your response completely avoided the cognizance of brako. Whatever.

      Posted Dec-14-2011 By 

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    • @cougar58 out of curiosity, what was the amount due to you? and did you also collect court fees and interest on the late payment?

      Posted Dec-14-2011 By 

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    • @Punch_The_Monkey I had no idea the court was holding her until she paid...& the court just looked at the balance due, and did not factor in the 8% interest....I guess that was also my responsibility. It was around $3000

      Posted Dec-14-2011 By 

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    • @cougar58

      So, you committed a felony, vandalizing her car, to get some money.

      Hard to tell who's the bigger piece of human shit here, you or her.

      Posted Dec-29-2012 By 

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  • what b.s !

    Posted Dec-14-2011 By 

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  • Oh, boo hoo for the creditors. Some of those creditors are at least 50% responsible for lending to people will poor to little credit in the fist place. Blame all around.

    Posted Dec-14-2011 By 

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  • Unbelievable.

    This is complete insanity.

    Posted Dec-14-2011 By 

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  • Comment of user 'vtxphantom' has been deleted by author (after account deletion)!
  • same happened to me 30 yrs at the airport due to an unpayed ticket (minor parking violation). guess what I did on the spot when I was told that an arrest was imminent...

    Posted Dec-14-2011 By 

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  • there should be an option to work it off, might be cheaper for tax payers.

    Posted Dec-15-2011 By 

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  • Comment of user 'Duckmanlivesagain' has been deleted by author (after account deletion)!
  • This article is total BS. These people are being arrested because the court ordered the arrest for failing to appeal after a judgment has been rendered against them. To be in this situation, you've had numerous chances to appear in court after being properly served but just never show. Another leftist anti-personal responsibility bullshit garbage article supporting the dead-beat low life losers of America.

    Posted Dec-14-2011 By 

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  • If you can't pay it back don't use your credit simple really and if you do use it and don't pay it back that is stealing.

    Posted Dec-14-2011 By 

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    • @NakedPray And if you lose the job you had for ten yrs to downsizing and can't pay bills...they put you in prison to work for the private prison owners for slave wages.
      I guess the blacks still aren't free are they. Seems that the average white guy is no longer free either.

      Posted Dec-14-2011 By 

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  • Home of the brave, land of the free . . . not so much anymore.

    Posted Dec-14-2011 By 

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