The Return of Debtors’ Prisons
Monday, June 14, 2010 at 1:01 pm
No, really. Via Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that more and more people are being picked up and tossed in jail to satisfy their debts. Here’s one of many stories:
As a sheriff’s deputy dumped the contents of Joy Uhlmeyer’s purse into a sealed bag, she begged to know why she had just been arrested while driving home to Richfield after an Easter visit with her elderly mother.
No one had an answer. Uhlmeyer spent a sleepless night in a frigid Anoka County holding cell, her hands tucked under her armpits for warmth. Then, handcuffed in a squad car, she was taken to downtown Minneapolis for booking. Finally, after 16 hours in limbo, jail officials fingerprinted Uhlmeyer and explained her offense — missing a court hearing over an unpaid debt. “They have no right to do this to me,” said the 57-year-old patient care advocate, her voice as soft as a whisper. “Not for a stupid credit card.”
The story notes that it is not illegal to owe anyone money or to be in debt, but judges are still issuing arrest warrants for people who have received summons or wage garnishments and still cannot pay:
In Minnesota, which has some of the most creditor-friendly laws in the country, the use of arrest warrants against debtors has jumped 60 percent over the past four years, with 845 cases in 2009, a Star Tribune analysis of state court data has found.
Not every warrant results in an arrest, but in Minnesota many debtors spend up to 48 hours in cells with criminals. Consumer attorneys say such arrests are increasing in many states, including Arkansas, Arizona and Washington, driven by a bad economy, high consumer debt and a growing industry that buys bad debts and employs every means available to collect.
Whether a debtor is locked up depends largely on where the person lives, because enforcement is inconsistent from state to state, and even county to county. In Illinois and southwest Indiana, some judges jail debtors for missing court-ordered debt payments. In extreme cases, people stay in jail until they raise a minimum payment. In January, a judge sentenced a Kenney, Ill., man “to indefinite incarceration” until he came up with $300 toward a lumber yard debt.
The article notes that it generally isn’t the original cell phone company or utility aggressively seeking repayment from their delinquent customers. Often, debt collection agencies buy up delinquent contracts in bundles and then go after the debtors. These companies go to court to get a summons or wage garnishment, and then can ask the judge for a warrant for contempt if the debtors do not show up and pay up. Of course, it costs taxpayers to have police officers pick up debtors and house them overnight in jail. Often, that expense is greater than the debt itself.
“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.”
Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.