One of the defining features of my work has been the loss of integrity in the justice system, not just because of separate tiers of accountability for the rich and powerful, but also because of the active collusion of the system in corrupt practices. An ACLU report on modern-day debtor’s prisons caught my eye because of its deep examination of the judiciary’s active collaboration.
Debtor’s prisons have been illegal in America since 1833. But that doesn’t matter. We know about some ways people can languish in jail for being poor—if they cannot pay bail, for example, or if they rack up fines related to imprisonment that must be paid upon release. The ACLU report scrutinizes an additional phenomenon: private debt collectors using courts and district attorneys to threaten incarceration as a means of profit.
A staggering one in three Americans have a delinquent debt in the hands of a private collection agency, according to Consumer Financial Protection Bureau data. These debts are not large—around $1,300 on average. But debt collectors often hit up small-claims courts to obtain a judgment, filing hundreds of suits per day in some cases. Over 90 percent of these cases are decided for the collection agencies, mostly because they go uncontested. After winning, companies can garnish wages or seize property. They can also ask for “judgment debtor examinations,” a process where debtors are grilled about their financial histories to determine the final payment method. If the debtor doesn’t show to the exam, companies can petition judges to issue arrest warrants. Judges can also issue arrest warrants to individuals who fail to comply with a court-ordered payment plan. The fact that the debtor never receives a notice of the lawsuit or of when to show up to court, or whether the debt is even real, is of little consequence.
The ACLU examined over 1,000 cases in 26 states where judges dutifully issued the arrest warrants for failure to appear. In four states where they could receive full data (Maryland, Massachusetts, Nebraska, and Utah), the ACLU found 8,500 arrest warrants in debt-collection cases. The warrants cover every kind of debt: medical bills, student loans, rent payments, homeowners’ association fees, utility bills, repairs, payday loans, gym fees, you name it. The amounts involved in the warrants were as low as $28.
Debtors typically don’t know about the warrant until they’re pulled over for a traffic violation or officers enter their home or workplace. Debtors can sit in jail for weeks, all for not paying a bill. If they arrange bail, that money often goes directly to the debt-collection agency.