Debtors' Prisons Making a Comeback in America?

By Jason Beahm on June 15, 2010 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Pay up or go to jail.

That's the situation American debtors are increasing facing after debt collectors utilize local police to collect on debts. In some places, debt collectors can get a civil warrant for the debtor's arrest. Once arrested, debtors can spend the night, or even the weekend in jail, until they can be brought before a judge.

Another clever trick used by the debt collectors? Getting bail set at the amount of the debt they owe. "It's certainly an efficient way to collect debts, but it's also highly distasteful," Hennepin County District Judge Jack Nordby told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "The amount of bail should have nothing to do with the amount of the debt."

It is unknown how often this is happening, as statistics are not kept nationwide. But many people are shocked to find out that it is happening at all. Debtors' prisons were common in the United States prior to the mid-nineteenth century. In 1833, the United States abolished federal imprisonment for failing to pay debts and many states followed. Before then, the use of debtor's prisons had been widespread.

In 2009, the New York Times reported on Edwina Nowlin, a poor Michigan resident, who was ordered to reimburse a juvenile detention center $104 a month for holding her 16-year-old son. When she didn't pay, she was thrown in prison. The American Civil Liberties Union intervened, and eventually got her out, but not before she spent 28 days in jail.

Debt collectors, while acknowledging that it is a tough tactic, defend its legitimacy. 

"Admittedly, it's a harsh sanction," said Steven Rosso, a partner in the Como Law Firm of St. Paul, "But sometimes, it's the only sanction we have."

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