A 1983 Supreme Court ruling made it unconstitutional for judges to send people to prison because they were too poor to pay court fines, but Americans continue to find themselves in jail for unpaid debt.
Actually, debtor’s prisons have been outlawed in the U.S. for more than 200 years, but local news and jail records show that’s not the reality all debtors face. Here are some people who were sent to jail for debt during the past few years.
1. The ‘Body Attachment’
In 2012, Wakita Shaw failed to repay a $425 payday loan, and her creditor sued her as a means to get payment, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Shaw had a judgment against her, and she didn’t show up for a court date at which a judge would have determined what assets a creditor could seize to satisfy the debt. Because she didn’t go, Shaw’s creditor asked for a “body attachment,” which is an order to arrest and hold the debtor until a hearing or the debtor posts bond.
2. The Red Herring (or Bass, Really)
When fishing in a Michigan river in 2011, Kyle DeWitt thought he caught a rock bass, when in fact he’d caught an out-of-season smallmouth bass, NPR reported. He was fined $155 for the infraction but couldn’t pay because he had lost his job. His failure to pay resulted in a warrant for his arrest, and he said he never received paperwork for paying the fee in installments. He was jailed for nonpayment, and a family paid his $175 bond, which didn’t go toward his fine that had grown to more than $200. Still unable to pay the fine, DeWitt was sentenced to three days in jail.
3. A Busted Furnace Brings the Heat
Iheanyi Daniel Okoroafor was in small claims court July 18 over a $508 debt for a furnace repair he said was improperly done. He told the Daily Hampshire Gazette he thought he would have a chance to explain why he didn’t pay the bill, but at the end of the hearing, the judge ruled Okoroafor was in contempt of court and sent him to jail.
4. A Forgotten Speeding Ticket
Glennie Smith was a former mayoral candidate in Rock Hill, N.C., who was jailed Aug. 7 for allegedly failing to pay a $330 speeding ticket from March 2012, according to the Charlotte Observer. She still owed about $200 when arrested, and she faced 30 days in jail for failing to pay the fine after being given “several chances by judges in the past two years.” Someone posted her bond and paid the fine. She was released the same day.
5. A Sad Sentence
Eileen DiNino died in her cell June 7, halfway through a 48-hour jail sentence for unpaid truancy and court fines she had accumulated after years of her children’s absences from school. According to local news reports, more than 1,600 people have been jailed in Berks County over truancy fines since 2000, two-thirds of them women. DiNino’s sudden death wasn’t considered suspicious.
The issue of sending poor people to jail for unpaid debt seems to be tied to a judge’s interpretation of a defendant’s ability to pay debts: If you have a court order to pay a debt (called a judgment), the judge can hold you in contempt for refusing to pay or fine you for failing to show up when you’re supposed to be in court. You may say you can’t afford to pay, but the judge might see it differently, saying perhaps you could have done more to come up with the money you owe.
It’s a familiar story to many people, and it’s something organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union are working to change. Earlier this year, the ACLU of Ohio issued a report on the common practice of imprisoning debtors in the state, and the state Supreme Court later issued instructions to Ohio judges to prevent the practice from continuing.
Consumers with judgments against them have more to confront than a possible jail sentence (though, constitutionally, that shouldn’t be a concern): Judgments have an adverse affect on your credit score, making it difficult to obtain financing at affordable interest rates. Having such few options, people sometimes turn to high-interest products like cash advances, credit cards and payday loans to make ends meet, which can also lead to a cycle of unaffordable debt.
If you have a creditor coming after you for unpaid debt, or a judgement against you as a result, here are some tips for getting your finances and your credit back on track. You can also see how a judgment is affecting your credit by using free tools on Credit.com.
More on Managing Debt:
- How to Pay Off Credit Card Debt
- The Best Way to Loan Money to Friends & Family
- Top 10 Debt Collection Rights