The good news is you haven’t fallen into a wormhole and woken up in the 18th century. The bad news is that, yes, debtors’ prisons are a reality again, sort of.
On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal reported on Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s efforts to crack down on a legal practice that sounds strikingly similar to debtors’ prisons: debt collection agencies using the courts to coerce customers into coughing up what they owe, and having them thrown in jail if they don’t. Or can’t.
According to the WSJ, “more than one-third of U.S. states allow borrowers who can’t or won’t pay to be jailed.” How terrifying!
Contempt of Court is Usually the Charge
“A debt-related arrest warrant is typically issued when a borrower who was sued for payments on an outstanding debt doesn’t show up in court or fails to make payments ordered by a judge,” writes the paper. In the first instance, the charge is contempt of court, and in the second, debtors are actually arrested for their debts. But the paper points out that this line is not so clear. Due to “sloppy, incomplete, or false paperwork” people routinely don’t know that they’ve been sued in the first place, and end up in jail for contempt of court charges anyway.
A recent story by KCTV in Kansas City demonstrates that the practice is alive and well in Kansas, too (not Missouri, check the dateline). James Davis bought furniture on credit, missed payments because he lost his job, then missed one of many court dates, so a bench warrant was issued for his arrest. He worked with his creditors to make a new payment plan, and stuck to it until he lost another job, and missed another payment.
Then sheriff’s deputies showed up to his door and arrested him on the original contempt of court charge, despite the fact that he had been in touch with his creditors — a law firm that had purchased the debt from the furniture store — since the court date in question.
Indefinite Incarceration for Debt?
Minnesota is also seeing an explosion in debt-related arrests according to a story in the Star Tribune, which reports that sometimes the courts keep debtors locked up “until they raise a minimum payment.” An Illinois man, they report, was locked up indefinitely “until he came up with $300 toward a lumber yard debt.”
Debtors’ prisons were abolished in the United States in 1833, the same year that Chicago was founded. 178 years later in Illinois, Chicago is a city of nearly 3 million people, and Illinois citizens are being arrested at the behest of debt collection agencies, and imprisoned until they can pay their way to freedom.
So, as you play a seemingly interminable game of Monopoly with your family this weekend, consider this: to what extent does our legal system resemble the one portrayed in the board game, and to what extent does it resemble the one you learned about in Civics class?