Thursday, November 18, 2010

Back door to debtors' prison

It is common knowledge that there are no debtors' prisons in the United States. Wikipedia says "In 1833 the United States abolished Federal imprisonment for unpaid debts, and most states outlawed the practice around the same time."

But it would be reckless to conclude from this knowledge that one need not worry about being jailed or imprisoned as a consequence of not paying the bills. At Making Light, commenter Magenta Griffith points to an article in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, "In jail for being in debt." It recounts a number of recent cases in which debtors have found themselves behind bars.

The amounts can be small. $35 is the amount in one case.

A sidebar asks "Is jailing debtors the same as debtors jail?" Not quite. The trick is that the collector has obtained a court order. Failure to appear in court is the offense for which the debtor is jailed. The sidebar explains,

"We have created a de facto debtors prison system in the United States that is largely unconstitutional," said Judith Fox, a law professor at Notre Dame Law School. "In some parts of the country, people are so fearful of arrest they are scrambling to pay money they might not even owe."

In states such as Indiana and Illinois, people are being locked up for not making court-ordered payments. Known as "pay or stay," it can mean days in jail and multiple arrests for the same debt. Some legal experts say the practice is unconstitutional because the arrest is directly linked to the failure to pay a debt.

In Minnesota, the issue is less clear because warrants to arrest debtors are issued for disobeying court orders, such as not filling out a financial disclosure form and missing a required hearing, not for failure to pay debt. So long as someone fulfills the court order, they can avoid incarceration.

All too often, debtors are not aware that a court date has been set or a warrant issued.

An article at Walletpop about the Star-Tribune piece received 100 comments, some of them substantive.

The NY Times had an editorial about the practice last year.

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