Debtors’ Prison Still A Reality?

July 19, 2010 | By | 4 Replies More

According to a recent article by Chris Serres at the Minnesota Star Tribune, courts still order debtors to go to jail when they can’t afford to pay a judgment.

Image thanks to

Image thanks to

Wait a second, you say. Wikipedia describes debtors’ prisons as a thing of the past, or at least an unconstitutional one, according to this 2009 New York Times editorial, “The New Debtors’ Prisons.”  Yes, it is unconstitutional to jail a debtor who can’t pay his or her way out of jail. But debtors are being jailed for just this reason, even if they show up to court. Moreover, debtors can be jailed for failing to show up to court when a collector wants to find out about their income and property.

Debtors’ Prisons Are Unamerican

The New Yorker published an article last April that characterizes debtors’ prisons as a pre-20th Century institution, and describes the America as a refuge for debtors.

As many as two out of every three Europeans who came to the American colonies were debtors on arrival. Some colonies were, basically, debtors’ asylums. By the seventeen-sixties, sympathy for debtors had attached itself to the patriot cause.

Jill Lepore of The New Yorker goes on to describe how American treatment of debt has evolved to allow bankruptcy and why this is a good thing.

Debtors’ prison was abolished, and bankruptcy law was liberalized, because Americans came to see that most people who fall into debt are victims of the business cycle, and not of fate or divine retribution.

20th Century Debtors’ Prison

Times have changed. To be sure, most Americans who are deep in credit card debt do not have bench warrants issued for their arrest. However, in Illinois, Indiana and other states, a person who’s gotten a judgment entered against them can miss a court date and find themselves being hounded by the police.


Reporters from The New York Times and The Federal Trade Commission have found that the collection industry is in dire need of repair, and cited numerous, ubiquitous problems. Some of these problems are startling. To wit:

  • Defendants  don’t receive notice of the debt collection suit against them, cannot defend themselves in court, and sometimes end up in jail for failure to appear at a hearing;
  • Collectors file suits by the thousands – and their complaints don’t tell defendants what the suit is about;
  • Defendants who can’t afford to go to court because they don’t want to miss work or can’t find transportation to the courthouse have warrants issued for their arrest.

A Broken System

In its recent report on Debt Collection Litigation and Arbitration, “Repairing a Broken System,” the FTC found that:

the costs of appearing in court to defend debt collection lawsuits may deter some consumers from participating. Consumers may lose income if they are absent from work, or they may lack reliable transportation to and from the courthouse.

Scared Into Filing Bankruptcy?

Maybe there’s more to the sudden uptick in bankruptcy filings than unfettered borrowing. Maybe people are afraid of what will happen in court, if they get sued by a credit card company, or some debt buyer company they’ve never heard of, and they don’t find out about their court date until it’s too late.

Image thanks to and Elton Bennett

Image thanks to and Elton Bennett


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Category: Civil Rights, Consumer Protection, Consumerism, Court Decisions, Current Events, Economy, Law, law and order, Social justice

About the Author ()

Zoevinly is a poverty lawyer practicing in the bible belt.

Comments (4)

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  1. Zoevinly says:

    Here's another article on Consumerist about the phenomenon:

    If you lose a small claims case in Minnesota, Illinois or Indiana – if you don't even receive notice of the case and the court enters a default judgment against you – that's bad luck. But it's just the beginning…

    5 or 6 years later, someone who bought your debt from Portfolio Recovery who bought your debt from Unifund who bought your debt from another debt buyer could set your case for hearing on whether you can pay the judgment. If you don't get notice of the hearing at the address where you lived 5-6 years ago, you will probably miss your court date. Welcome to life behind bars, my friend. This arrest may be published in your credit report, online through the Sheriff's Department, and may ultimately hinder your efforts to get a job, find housing, or borrow money at a decent rate.

  2. infinity4me says:

    To Winnebago county court, Machesney Park police and their attorneys Barrick, Switzer, Long, Balsley % Evera, LLP Rockford, IL.

    I’m writing this letter to inform you that my brother Danny Watkins has passed away. He has been pretty sick the last couple years and has not been able to work. He took letters to you written from his doctor, stating that he could not work. He was living in my Dads basement, because he could not work. He tried to get disability for the last 3 years, but we all know how hard they make it for someone who needs help. That case is still pending. The only help my brother got was $221.00 a month from link. $221.00 was his only income for a full month for over 2 years.

    Yet he was harassed by the court, and Machesney Park police dept. attorneys for fines for a traffic violation. They sent him letters threatening to put him in jail if he didn’t pay his fine. He was even mailed a warrant card for his arrest because he missed court when he was in the hospital his last week of his life.

    I would like to tell you, now you can take your $1500.00 fine and SHOVE IT up where the sun don’t shine. My brother was always concerned about paying his debts and he would have paid this one if he was well enough to work. Yet you idiots ignored his letters from the doctors and told him to give you $1500.00 or you are going to put him in jail. You people caused my brother who was dieing more stress and agony than you can imagine. (I know because he anguishly told me about your harrassment and how he wished he could pay you and showed me your letters of harrassment). You people should be in prison for stressing a man on his death bed over a measly $1500.00.

    SHAME ON YOU!!!!

    With the amount of people who do really bad things who are let go because of overcrowding and they are going to waste space on people who cant pay their debts? Arrest the companies raking people over the coals with their raised interest and outlandish fees that can be changed with out notice. And for the government to allow this to happen? Bail out big corporations who are in worse debt than the average American, but lets jail a dieing man over $1500.00. This makes my blood boil how incompetent our justice system is anymore.

    When a law is no longer practiced its for good reason, Its not a crime to owe money, and debtors prisons were abolished in the United States in the 19th century for a reason. But now, more than ever our judges are putting people in jail for not being able to pay their debts?

    Nice to know there is a working crack house down the street, but my dieing brother can be thrown in jail over a $1500.00 fine? This is idiotic! Corporations can be in debt and the U.S. government will bail them out, pat them on the head and say it’ll be ok. But a citizen of this country owes money and they get tossed in jail? What have we come to? What an abuse of power! And to jail someone until they come up with a minimum payment is the stupidest thing I ever heard of! How are they supposed to raise the payment when they are sitting in a jail cell??

    Where is the compassion or simple common sense of this justice system? Have you all lost your minds?

  3. Zoevinly says:

    I am so sad to hear of your loss, and the needless stress and doubt that he suffered through the court system. There's no common sense in jailing people for failure to pay their debts. Just as you say, it makes it harder for the person to pay, and costs the system more of the same resources that it was trying to get from your brother.

    In Greene Co. Illinois, the Circuit Clerk and States' Attorney have teamed up to do a sweep for debts that haven't been paid, and intend to collect them by notice, then arrest, as well. It's a sad day when the agents who are supposed to protect us instead become a collection tool. Thank you for sharing your brother's story.

  4. rosa says:

    infinity4me good letter. I do hope they actually read it. sorry about your brother. the abuse of power is appauling, you know the bible says that mere oppression is making the wise one act crazy, oppression translated into squezzed.

    what you are witnessing is a symptom of people's alienation from God, truly Godly people do not act like this. jesus said a rotten tree cannot produce good fruit. that god given conscious is supposed to prevent abuses like this, but alas many people consciou is seared (burned off or made callous) by greed, fear or drunkedness with power.

    you had a right to be angry. your brother didn't need such abuse in his time of need. I hope you will be alright.

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