It's not a crime to owe money, and debtors' prisons were abolished in the United States in the 19th century. But people are routinely being thrown in jail for failing to pay debts. In Minnesota, which has some of the most creditor-friendly laws in the country, the use of arrest warrants against debtors has jumped 60 percent over the past four years, with 845 cases in 2009, a Star Tribune analysis of state court data has found.
Not every warrant results in an arrest, but in Minnesota many debtors spend up to 48 hours in cells with criminals. Consumer attorneys say such arrests are increasing in many states, including Arkansas, Arizona and Washington, driven by a bad economy, high consumer debt and a growing industry that buys bad debts and employs every means available to collect.
Whether a debtor is locked up depends largely on where the person lives, because enforcement is inconsistent from state to state, and even county to county.
In Illinois and southwest Indiana, some judges jail debtors for missing court-ordered debt payments. In extreme cases, people stay in jail until they raise a minimum payment. In January, a judge sentenced a Kenney, Ill., man "to indefinite incarceration" until he came up with $300 toward a lumber yard debt.
In Minnesota, judges have issued arrest warrants for people who owe as little as $85 -- less than half the cost of housing an inmate overnight. Debtors targeted for arrest owed a median of $3,512 in 2009, up from $2,201 five years ago.
Those jailed for debts may be the least able to pay.
"It's just one more blow for people who are already struggling," said Beverly Yang, a Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation staff attorney who has represented three Illinois debtors arrested in the past two months. "They don't like being in court. They don't have cars. And if they had money to pay these collectors, they would."
The laws allowing for the arrest of someone for an unpaid debt are not new.
What is new is the rise of well-funded, aggressive and centralized collection firms, in many cases run by attorneys, that buy up unpaid debt and use the courts to collect.
And as soon as the legal system gets involved, it's all over.
It's hard to believe that this is about collecting a debt, for a destitute person cannot do much to earn a living to pay off a debt while in jail. And as the middle class is further and further eviscerated by the GOP with the help of spineless Democrats, you're going to see this country get more Dickensian by the day.
This is why the GOP's success in convincing voters with a perilous toehold in the middle class that they are the ones on the side of "ordinary Americans" is so dangerous. These voters are collaborators with the very same people whose agenda is to push them down into the ranks of the poor and take away even the little bit of power they once had.