Debtors’ prisons may be illegal under the Missouri state constitution, but the practice of locking people up for unpaid debts is alive and well, according to recent reporting by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Using a little-known practice called “body attachments,” debt collectors, often working for payday lenders, regularly succeed in getting debtors thrown behind bars.
Critics say the practice is both illegal, and a waste of finite government resources.
“You wouldn’t want to be spending taxpayer money to collect $400 and $500 debts,” Rob Swearingen, attorney for Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, told the Post-Dispatch. “Don’t the county police have something better to do?”
The practice is also common in neighboring Illinois, where state leaders recently passed legislation limiting the circumstances in which creditors can get debtors jailed for failure to pay private debts.
“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,” Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who spent the last year campaigning for her state’s new law, told the newspaper.
Attorneys for creditors disagree. The arrests and jail time are actually meted out to punish people for failing to appear in court to discuss their debts, they point out.
“If they’ve had notice and they fail to appear, then they get what they deserve,” Mitchell Jacobs, an attorney for creditors, told the Post-Dispatch.
Winding up in debtors’ prison is a three-step process. First, the creditor gets a civil judgment showing that the debt is legitimate and the debtor has failed to repay. Next, the creditor and debtor meet in court for what’s called an “examination” of the debtor’s assets, which the lender may be able to seize.
If the debtor fails to show up for the examination, the creditor can ask the court for a “body attachment,” which functions like an arrest warrant. The debtor can then be arrested and held in jail until he or she appears in court or pays the bond. The bond is commonly set at the amount owed in the original debt.
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“It’s the judge saying, ‘You didn’t show up when we told you to, and I don’t like it,” Jacobs says.
But the system is easily abused, according to lawyers who represent low-income debtors. Creditors can request multiple examinations, increasing the likelihood that a debtor won’t show up.
“They were dragging them back to court again and again, waiting for them to fail, so they could get a body attachment against them,” Swearingen says.
The new law in Illinois requires courts to send two notifications to debtors before ordering an arrest, and bars creditors from obtaining repeat examinations unless the debtors’ circumstances have changed. There is currently no effort afoot to limit the practice in Missouri.
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Image: Michael Coghlan, via Flickr