Well, goodbye everyone. It was nice enjoying the free world with you all.

It’s been illegal in the United States to jail people for owing money on a debt since 1833; if you took American History you might remember that early America hadn’t yet established a credit system so sending debtors to jail was ineffective and way too harsh. But now, with so many Americans struggling to keep up with their bills, collection agencies are going all Andrew Jackson with it and issuing arrest warrants to debtors. More than two-thirds of states now allow borrowers who are behind on their bills to be jailed.

From National Public Radio:

Here’s how it happens: 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.

However, due to the sloppy record-keeping and the poorly regulated practices of collection agencies (who, in my opinion, are just glorified bounty hunters) many debtors never know that they have these warrants until they find themselves behind bars.

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. 

Some debtors have also been jailed for long periods due to their inability to make bail, costing the state more than they owe in the first place. It’s a spiral effect that basically leads to one small bill turning into a huge, life-shaking headache.

From Thinkprogress:

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. Stories of surprise arrests for unpaid debt have been reported in states including Indiana, Tennessee and Washington. In Kansas City, one man ended up in jail after missing only a furniture payment

Am I the only one who finds it frightening that collection agencies are allowed to have this kind of power? I’m all for personal responsibility and I realize that when debt goes unpaid it affects the entire economy. But one furniture payment? Don’t the consequences seem mis-matched with the offense? How far can this practice go before these agencies are put in check?

Like I said, it’s been nice knowing you all. Because if Sallie Mae could kick my door down and go through my pockets for loose change before hauling me off to prison right now, she would.

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  • Whatever

    This is absolutely ridiculous on so many levels.

  • arealsista

    Unfortunately, this article missed a really important point on the return of debt prisons. Being incarcerated is BIG business, and the private companies that own the prisons actually benefit from throwing people in jail for minor offenses, including debt. We saw this with the so-called Drug War and now we are seeing this with the return of debtors prisons.Here’s another concept, many of the people tossed into jail are forced to work for horrible amounts like 46 cents for a whole day (being a higher end job) or less. Basically because of debt you can be tossed into prison and become a slave. You can’t pay back a $26,000 debt on 46 cents a day, therefore its clear the system now owns you. If you do some research you will see that it’s illegal and it’s immoral, but it’s trying to push us all back into slave labor, because the rich just need to get richer.

    I would like to point out ot everyone out there that the USA is a debt hole. You may not have past debt but stop paying any bills you have now and see they will take everything from you. For example, own a house? Like allegedly free and clear, maybe you inherited it? Well, dont pay the tax on it. Your house could have a $500-$1000 yearly tax,and if you dont pay, they will take that bad boy RIGHT FROM YOU. In the USA we own nothing but our bodies and even those they are figuring out ways to subsidize.

  • Look at our country, we can’t fix and/or pay our own ” National Debt), but if we fall behind on some of our personal debts, they can throw us in jail? What a contradiction! Those that live in glass houses, should not throw stones!!

  • Sky

    A petition has been started on moveon.org to prevent the return of debtor’s prison in the USA. To sign the petition go to: