Debtors prisons haven’t been around for a long time, but apparently they’re on the verge of making a comeback. The unfortunate souls who are having a very hard time making ends meet in this turbulent economy now have something to add to their growing collection of concerns. If debt collectors have anything to say about the situation, individuals who can’t pay their bills in a timely manner may find themselves spending a bit of time behind bars. Although it may sound pretty absurd, this isn’t the premise for some far-reaching science fiction novel for young adults.
Just ask Lisa Lindsay, the breast cancer survivor who found herself jailed for an unpaid medical bill. It’s also worth noting that the bill wasn’t even hers in the first place. The Herren, Illinois resident was sent the $280 bill completely by accident, though nobody on the other end made the proper adjustments to correct the error. Eventually the unpaid note was sent to a collection agency, and before she knew what, exactly, was going down, Lindsay found herself being handcuffed and hauled off by state troopers.
The cost of settling this issue: $600. “I paid it in full so they couldn’t do it to me again,” Lindsay explained.
Unfortunately, this isn’t an isolated issue. Scenarios similar to the one described above have been popping up all over the country recently, despite the fact that the US abolished debtors prisons back in the 1830’s. According to the Wall Street Journal, more than a third of US states allow people to be tossed in jail for not paying their bills in a timely fashion. However, some lawmakers are attempting to stop collectors from abusing the system in such a nefarious manner.
Don’t get too worked up: Debt collectors can’t just toss you in jail for simply not paying the money you owe. What puts you in hot water is being in “contempt of court”, which means you’ve willfully ignored requests for you to show up and explain why you’ve decided to skip out on your scheduled payments.
Steps are currently being taken to make sure this sort of thing doesn’t happen again. In order to stop collectors from using loopholes and false documentation to send people to jail, states are passing laws to prevent people in dire financial trouble from spending time behind bars. An Illinois bill, for example, would require court notices to be delivered directly to the individual’s home before such drastic measures can be taken. Right now, collectors are only required to send notices through the mail.
What do you think about the situation? Should debt collectors be allowed to toss folks in jail for not paying bills, or is this an extreme consequence for committing a crime that most people in this economy simply cannot avoid? Should we clog our judicial system with people who are being punished for being poor? Place your thoughts in the comments section.