6.20.2010

debtors prisons! they're not just for dickens anymore!

How fortuitous to see this as I'm reading Dickens' Little Dorrit. The title character of that novel grew up in the Marshalsea Prison, a prison for debtors, and her family was twisted and ruined behind its walls. Dickens is a little dense for most modern readers, but perhaps some judges and state legislators should give it a try.
You committed no crime, but an officer is knocking on your door. More Minnesotans are surprised to find themselves being locked up over debts.

As a sheriff's deputy dumped the contents of Joy Uhlmeyer's purse into a sealed bag, she begged to know why she had just been arrested while driving home to Richfield after an Easter visit with her elderly mother.

No one had an answer. Uhlmeyer spent a sleepless night in a frigid Anoka County holding cell, her hands tucked under her armpits for warmth. Then, handcuffed in a squad car, she was taken to downtown Minneapolis for booking. Finally, after 16 hours in limbo, jail officials fingerprinted Uhlmeyer and explained her offense -- missing a court hearing over an unpaid debt. "They have no right to do this to me," said the 57-year-old patient care advocate, her voice as soft as a whisper. "Not for a stupid credit card."

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.

The story includes links to "What to know: Avoiding warrants," "Top five companies using debt arrest warrants," and "Is jailing debtors the same as debtors jail?" It sounds like something out of SNL. But no. Welcome to 21st Century USA.

3 comments:

redsock said...

Just curious: How is someone sentenced to "indefinite incarceration" supposed to earn $300?

Mike said...

What the Dickens? I guess one is supposed to make that $300 the old fashioned way earn it, after all as I've been told time and time a again there must be some where to to work. Of course where that is they never tell you just that there has to be somewhere. Of course in prison there's the wide world of smuggling contraband.

John F said...

The far right is jumping the gun here. Why dismantle Victorian social progress when you're not finished with the 20th century? C'mon guys, finish doing away with basic civil rights, welfare, safety regulation, and women's suffrage first!