Jail time for unpaid debts: Debtors prison making a comeback?

Jail time for unpaid debts?  Debtors prison?  These sound like something straight out of history and a Charles Dickens novel.   Unfortunately it isn’t only the ghost of debts past, but for some it also be be ghost of unpaid debts in the present and the future.

Do these facts and figures bother you? 

Robin Ebersohl had a loud muffler, but no money to fix it.  Instead of getting pulled over because of her car she was arrested and spent three days in jail before her father could pay the $500 to get her released.  What was her crime? Unpaid medical bills.  She was a truck driver who came down with cancer.  She lost her medical insurance when she could no longer work.  Medical bills piled up. Eventually she got disability benefits but still couldn’t pay off the bills.

A 53 year-old woman named Vivian Joy was stopped for a broken tail-light in Champaign, Illinois.  When the police discovered that she still hadn’t paid $2,200 to a collection agency, she was cuffed and carted off to jail.

Breast cancer survivor Lisa Lindsay didn’t even owe the money.  This twenty something teaching assistant received a medical bill that was incorrect. After being told she didn’t have to pay it, it was turned over to a collection agency and she ended up in jail.

How does debtors prison happen? 

A credit files with the court.  A notice is sent to the person owing money.  Does everyone always receive this mail?  No probably not.  The hearing is held and if they don’t appear then the judgment is filed.   A warrant is then issued for the person’s arrest.  After bond is made, the money from bond goes straight to the collection agency (sort of like a wage garnishment) because after all if you can pay bail, you should be able to pay your bills right?  What about the family member that posted your bail for you?  Too bad, so sad, sorry about your luck.

In Pennsylvania, the criminal court charges for police transport, sheriff costs, state court costs, postage, and “judgment.”  Now you not only owe your debt, but you also out the court system.

The Wall Street Journal reports:

  • 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.
  • AIG got a $122.8 billion bailout from the federal government.  Jeffrey Stearns happened to owe AIG $4,000 on a loan for his pickup truck. Jeffery was picked up and arrested.  He was strip searched, sprayed for lice and spent two days in jail.

AIG wasn’t the only bank to receive a bailout.  Many others did too, but consumers are spending time in jail, even after government bailouts and selling unpaid debts to collection agencies actually “make them whole.”

Debtors’ prison is actually illegal, but that doesn’t mean that people aren’t spending time in jail for unpaid debts.  In this NPR article, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan says she thinks more can be done. It’s illegal in Illinois for people to be sent to jail because they’re in debt. But Madigan thinks some creditors are abusing the law.
What do the experts say about debtors prison?

“You wouldn’t be in that predicament if you didn’t have debt,” Madigan says. “But for being in debt, you wouldn’t be in prison. And that essentially equates to being thrown in jail, debtors’ prison.” “Creditors have been manipulating the court system to extract money from the unemployed, veterans, even seniors who rely solely on their benefits to get by each month,” Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said last month in a statement voicing support for the legislation. “Too many people have been thrown in jail simply because they’re too poor to pay their debts. We cannot allow these illegal abuses to continue.”

“The law enforcement system has unwittingly become a tool of the debt collectors,” said Michael Kinkley, an attorney in Spokane, Wash., who has represented arrested debtors. “The debt collectors are abusing the system and intimidating people, and law enforcement is going along with it.”

“It’s just one more blow for people who are already struggling,” said Beverly Yang, a Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation staff attorney who has represented three Illinois debtors arrested in the past two months. “They don’t like being in court. They don’t have cars. And if they had money to pay these collectors, they would.”

A 2010 report by the American Civil Liberties Union that focused on only five states — Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Washington — found that people were being jailed at “increasingly alarming rates” over legal debts.

According to the ACLU: “The sad truth is that debtors’ prisons are flourishing today, more than two decades after the Supreme Court prohibited imprisoning those who are too poor to pay their legal debts. In this era of shrinking budgets, state and local governments have turned aggressively to using the threat and reality of imprisonment to squeeze revenue out of the poorest defendants who appear in their courts.”

Think arrest should be stopped for unpaid bills? Tell Your Lawmakers: Shut Down The New Debtors’ Prisons.   What’s next breaking legs?

Or maybe you agree . . . maybe you think “you do the crime, you do the time” as some comments on the articles referenced here state.   Some call it “stealing” while others say that in today’s economy you would be hard pressed to find someone that doesn’t have unpaid bills.

Watch this video on Debtors’ Prison  and let us know what you think.