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.
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.