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.