Only Real Debtor’s Prison Is Your Mind

This is a terrifying headline: “JAILED FOR $280: THE RETURN OF DEBTOR’S PRISONS”

Is it true? Here’s the story: A woman got a bill for $280 from the hospital; she spoke to a person in billing and said, “This is an error”; the person in billing agreed that it was an error and said, “Don’t pay it”; she didn’t pay it; it got sent to collections, who presumably tried to get her to pay it; having been told not to pay it, she didn’t pay it; the collections agency sent her a summons for failure to pay; still working off the the original direction of, “don’t pay it,” she continued to not pay it, and ignored the summons; state troopers came to her house, arrested her, and took her to jail.

So, yes, she didn’t pay a debt and ended up in jail … but she went to jail for ignoring the court summons, not having a debt.

Hidden at the bottom of the article:

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.

Elie Mystal at Above the Law explains:

Don’t be afraid of these collectors. Be afraid of judges. Respond to the summons, make your court date, and make a deal. Not even Georgia puts people in jail for simple inability to pay their debts.

But in a 2010 report “In for a Penny: The Rise of America’s New Debtors’ Prisons,” the ACLU begs to differ:

[The report] shows how, day after day, indigent defendants are imprisoned for failing to pay legal debts they can never hope to manage. In many cases, poor men and women end up jailed or threatened with jail though they have no lawyer representing them. These sentences are illegal, create hardships for men and women who already struggle with re-entering society after being released from prison or jail, and waste resources in an often fruitless effort to extract payments from defendants who may be homeless, unemployed, or simply too poor to pay.

So there ARE debtor’s prisons, but they just look like regular prisons and are only for poor people who can’t pay for their public defenders/cost of incarceraton/court fees/etc. You can go to jail for owing a debt! But only if it’s to the government, and you don’t ignore it.

So the lesson is, there are three things never to be ignored:

1. collections agencies
2. courts
3. the IRS

And also: pay your bills, especially to the government.

Photo Credit: flickr/toolmantim

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