Readers of Victorian novels know what debtor’s prison is–a scabrous place where distressed maidens, handsome heroes and pitiable children who owe as little as 60 cents are locked up until their debts are paid. The U.S. abolished federal imprisonment for unpaid debts in 1833, and today, most of us are pretty sure that we can’t be sent to the pokey for blowing off a creditor.
We’d be wrong.
Creditors work the system to jail debtors
While we can’t be sent to a federal prison for ignoring bills, many states allow citizens to be popped into state or local lockups for unpaid debt. Savvy collection agencies use this process to do an end run around the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Here’s how it works:
- The collection agency sues the debtor, often in small claims court, with perhaps only a mailed summons (legal in some states, Illinois for example) or, worse, an imaginary notice referred to as “sewer service”
- The debtor tosses the paper threat unread or misunderstands its implications. The debtor automatically loses the case because he doesn’t show up in court. He’s ordered to pay the collection agency, and the judge issues a arrest warrant for failing to appear and/or make the court-ordered payments
- Mr. Debtor is dragged out of a PTA meeting on the outstanding warrant and goes to jail
- He makes bail, which is (amazingly!) set at the exact amount owed
- The bail is turned over to the creditor. Taxpayers foot the bill for arresting and jailing the “evildoer”
- If unable to come up with the money owed, Mr. Debtor rots in jail. According to a Minnesota Star Tribune article, an Illinois man was sentenced “to indefinite incarceration” until he paid his $300 lumber yard debt
What about mortgage lenders?