Return of the debtor’s prison

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US Debt collectors in states including Missouri and Alabama are using legal loopholes to lock up poor citizens who can’t pay their debts.

Illinois’ Attorney General Lisa Madigan has attacked the revival of the ‘debtors’ prisons’ – something most people associate with Dickens novels. ‘Too many people have been thrown in jail simply because they’re too poor to pay their debts,’ Madigan said. ‘We cannot allow these illegal abuses to continue.

The United States abolished debtors’ prisons in the 1830s, but more than a third of states allow borrowers who can’t or won’t pay their debts to be jailed.

The Wall Street Journal has flagged up an increasing number of debt-related incarceration, with the debts ranging from bills for health care services to credit card and car loans. In Missouri, the state constitution outlaws imprisoning someone for unpaid debts.

Despite this, sly payday lenders are putting people behind bars by getting a judgement in civil court, which summons them to appear for a ‘examination’ or review of their financial assets.

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, if they fail to show for the examination the creditor can ask for a ‘body attachment’ which is effectively a warrant for the person’s arrest. The police then haul them in jail where they remain until there’s a court hearing or they pay the bond – which is usually set at the amount of the original debt.

Illinois passed a bill in July which requires two ‘pay and appear’ court notices to be sent before a debtor can be arrested.  ‘It is outrageous to think in this day and age that creditors are manipulating the courts, even threatening jail time, to extract whatever they could from people who could least afford to pay,’ Madigan said. ‘This law corrects that gross oversight and puts a stop to throwing people in jail for being poor while still allowing fair debt collection when people have the means to pay their debts.’

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