Debtors prisons were federally abolished in the United States in the 1800’s, yet in certain states, they seem to be making a comeback. Out of Minnesota come disturbing reports of Americans being thrown in jail due to outstanding bills — sometimes for as little as $85. The Star-Tribune of Minneapolis profiles a number of people who say their debts got them jailed, including Joy Uhlmeyer a 57-year-old patient care advocate who was pulled over on her way home from visiting her elderly mother and put in jail for a night for missing a court hearing about unpaid debt.
The Star-Tribune reviewed the state’s court documents and found that arrests like Uhlmeyer’s are up 60% in Minnesota over the past four years. And Minnesota isn’t the only state where this is happening. It’s a turn of events Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director at advocacy group U.S. Public Interest Research Groups (or PIRG), calls a “very bad situation for consumers.” Mierzwinski attributes the practice to “bottom-feeder debt collectors [who] are very aggressive.”
People who are imprisoned for their debts are technically locked up for contempt of court after failing to appear for a hearing pertaining to their debt. It’s a legal loophole that debt-collection companies are increasingly using. Here’s how it works: First, the collections company files a lawsuit against the debtor, which requires them to appear in court. If the debtor doesn’t show up, the creditor wins a default judgment against them. This allows them to ask the court to schedule another hearing at which the judge can go through the debtor’s assets and determine if actions such as wage garnishments or bank account seizures can take place.