If it is “class warfare” when someone says something unfavorable about the super rich, what is it called when the state illegally imprisons impoverished citizens for owing petty debts?
Debtor’s prisons were a sad reality for impoverished people in the United States until the government banned such institutions in 1833. Nonetheless, over 1/3 of states have since found a loophole to put their debtors in prison anyway. Since the law does not permit arresting people for not paying bills, debt collectors instead file lawsuits and pursue those who fail to pay legal fines or do not show up for court hearings. Furthermore, because collection agencies’ paperwork and notification systems are notoriously shoddy, many debtors are not even aware that they are being incompliant until they are arrested.
Such is the case for Lisa Lindsay, a breast cancer survivor, who found herself in jail after receiving an erroneous medical bill for $280. After being assured that she did not actually owe money, she ignored the payment requests. Alas, the false bill still managed to somehow make its way to a collection agency, and police handcuffed her at her home and took her to jail.
This incident occurred in Illinois, a state that may have the most egregious examples of debtor abuse. Collection agencies frequently partner with law enforcement officers to coax people to pay their debts (even minor amounts in many cases) or face the threat of jail. In many cases, the police do not have the legal right to take such extreme steps against debtors, but seem to be unaware of this fact.
Fortunately, having noticed that these sorts of arrests are becoming increasingly commonplace, the Illinois House of Representatives passed a bill last month to forbid sending people to jail simply for falling into debt. Although the state senate must still pass the measure to put it into effect, Attorney General Lisa Madigan is in favor of the move. “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. 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.”
However, Illinois is not the only state dealing with this problem. Several states go so far as to permit collection agencies to add supplemental fees and interest to debtors. For example, collectors in Florida can tack on a 40% surcharge to late debtors. Naturally, this extra fee makes it even harder for debtors to pay off what they owe.
Moreover, while in prison, people are unable to earn money to pay off their debts, therefore compounding their problems. Experts argue that the extreme measures taken to intimidate people with small outstanding debts ultimately cost taxpayers the most money. After acquiring a criminal record, the debtors have an even more difficult time securing housing and employment as well as taking care of their children, so that burden often forces them into state welfare programs.
Addressing this situation, the ACLU said, “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.”
Photo Credit: Tim Pearce