How did breast cancer survivor Lisa Lindsay end up behind bars?
She didn’t pay a medical bill — one the Herrin, Ill., teaching assistant was told she didn’t owe. “She got a $280 medical bill in error and was told she didn’t have to pay it,” The Associated Press reports.
“But the bill was turned over to a collection agency, and eventually state troopers showed up at her home and took her to jail in handcuffs.”
In September 2009, Jeffrey Stearns, a concrete-company owner, answered a knock at the door from a Hancock County, Ind., deputy sheriff. The deputy was holding a warrant to arrest Mr. Stearns for not paying $4,024.88 owed to a unit of American International Group Inc. on a loan for his pickup truck.
After being handcuffed in front of his four children, Mr. Stearns, 29 years old, spent two nights in jail, where he said he was strip-searched and sprayed for lice. Court records show he was released after agreeing to pay $1,500 to the loan company. “I didn’t even know I was being sued,” he said, though he doesn’t dispute owing the money.
In a similar case, according to the WSJ, one Illinois resident was arrested for missing a court hearing regarding the $1,159.87 she owned on her Capitol One (COF) credit card. She paid $500 to get out of the local lock-up, which the company took as partial repayment of the debt.
Although the U.S. abolished debtors’ prisons in the 1830s, more than a third of U.S. states allow the police to haul people in who don’t pay all manner of debts, from bills for health care services to credit card and auto loans. In parts of Illinois, debt collectors commonly use publicly funded courts, sheriff’s deputies, and country jails to pressure people who owe even small amounts to pay up, according to the AP.
If debt collectors won’t get you, the courts might. Many states hit people convicted of a crime, even for minor offenses such as speeding, with a range of fees. Skip out on those and you can go to jail, too. Some states also apply “poverty penalties,” including late fees, payment plan fees and interest when people are unable to pay all their debts at once, according to New York University‘s Brennan Center for Justice. Alabama charges a 30 percent collection fee, for instance, while Florida allows private debt collectors to add a 40 percent surcharge on the original debt.
Many Florida counties also use so-called collection courts, where debtors can be jailed but have no right to a public defender. In Pennsylvania, prisoners are ineligible for parole unless they pay a $60 fee, or roughly $40 less than it costs to incarcerate someone in the state for a single day.
Such “criminal justice” fees amount to criminalizing poverty, says an attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project:
Incarcerating people simply because they cannot afford to pay their legal debts is not only unconstitutional but also has a devastating impact upon men and women, whose only crime is that they are poor.
Under the law, debtors aren’t arrested for nonpayment, but rather for failing to respond to court hearings, pay legal fines, or otherwise showing “contempt of court” in connection with a creditor lawsuit. That loophole has lawmakers in the Illinois House of Representatives concerned enough to pass a bill in March that would make it illegal to send residents of the state to jail if they can’t pay a debt. The measure awaits action in the senate.
“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,” Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said last month in a statement voicing support for the legislation. “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.”
Debt collectors typically avoid filing suit against debtors, a representative with the Illinois Collectors Association tells the AP. “A consumer that has been arrested or jailed can’t pay a debt. We want to work with consumers to resolve issues,” he said.
Like states, companies have every right to collect an unpaid debt. But to put people in jail over it is a great step backward for this country. It indicates a legal system as dysfunctional as our politics, as deadbeats like AIG’s Joe Cassano escape responsibility for their chicanery while lining their pockets at the public’s expense. Speaking of, the insurance company’s debt to taxpayers stands at nearly $59 billion. Anyone up for a citizen’s arrest?
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