A year ago the American Civil Liberties Union concluded in its year-long investigation, In For a Penny: The Rise of America's New Debtors' Prisons, that thousands of individuals with unpaid legal financial obligations were being jailed. This was done, in many instances, in direct contradiction of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Bearden v. Georgia nearly three decades ago.
NPR reported earlier this week that collection agencies are using tougher measures to force people pay their debt. These include filing lawsuits. When that is done, a notice to appear in court is supposed to be sent to the debtor. But the notices seem to go missing quite often. So people wind up being arrested on failure-to-appear warrants and they can subsequently wind up in jail for long periods.
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.
"They say they send out these court notices, and nobody gets them," Sanders says.
She spent four days in jail waiting for her father to raise $500 for her bail. That money was then turned over to the collection agency.
Compared to some people, she got off easy. The ACLU reports that a few people have spent months, or more, in jail or prison for failure to pay debts.
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan 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.
"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."
A third of the states permit people to be jailed for unpaid debt:
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. [...]
At the national level, the Federal Trade Commission began scrutinizing in July the use of arrest warrants in debt-collection lawsuits. An FTC spokesman declined to comment on whether the inquiry has led to formal investigations by the agency, which oversees the debt-collection industry and enforces a U.S. law that restricts how borrowers can be pursued for debts.
As the ACLU notes:
Incarcerating people simply because they cannot afford to pay their legal debts not only is unconstitutional but it has a devastating impact upon men and women, whose only crime is that they are poor. 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. This report seeks to document the realities of today's debtors' prisons and to provide state and local governments and courts with a more sensible path – one where they no longer will be compelled to fund their criminal justice systems on the backs of the poor, and one where the promise of equal protection under the law for the poor and affluent alike will finally be realized.
What's more is that debtors' prisons, like prisons in general, have a disproportionate impact on people of color. Given what having time in the slam does to one's prospects for getting a job or a loan, one word that comes to mind regarding debtors' prisons is "criminal." That's not a description of who's inside them but who's putting them there.