Can You Go To Jail If You Don’t Pay A Debt?

Being in debt is never fun. You carry a weight on your shoulders, and are bound by the obligations that you must fulfill. It stinks, but at least there are some protections for people who aren’t able to pay, and rules that govern how debts can be collected. In the past, debtors were not given as much leeway. In fact they were treated quite harshly. They were often sent to debtor’s prison:

During Europe’s Middle Ages, debtors, both men and women, were locked up together in a single large cell, until their families paid their debt. Debt prisoners often died of disease contracted from other debt prisoners. Conditions included starvation and abuse from other prisoners. If the father of a family was imprisoned for debt, the family business often suffered while the mother and children fell into poverty. Unable to pay the debt, the father often remained in debtors’ prison for many years. Some debt prisoners were released to become serfs or indentured servants (debt bondage) until they paid off their debt in labor.

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Debtor’s prisons continued to be used in the United States and United Kingdom into the 1800s, at which time both countries outlawed the practice of putting people in jail for their debts.  It was outlawed in the United States in 1833, and abolished in the UK in 1869.

You might be surprised to find out, however, that some countries to this day still use the practice.  Debtors in the United Arab Emirates, including Dubai, can be imprisoned for failing to pay their debts.

You Can Go To Jail For Your Debt – Even Today

While many people think being imprisoned for your debt in the U.S. is a thing of the past, they aren’t completely correct.

I was reading my local paper in Minnesota this past week when I discovered a series of articles talking about people who have been sent to jail for their debts.  While they have technically been sent to jail in many of these cases because they missed a court date related to their debt, or because they missed a court mandated debt payment, the fact remains that they were incarcerated in part because they have debt.

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.

While you’re probably OK if you follow up on court dates, and make your court ordered payments, if you miss a payment or a court date you could be in trouble.

Haekyung Nielsen, 27, of Bloomington, said police showed up at her house on a civil warrant two weeks after she gave birth through Caesarean section. A debt buyer had sent her court papers for an old credit-card debt while she was in the hospital; Nielsen said she did not have time to respond.

Her baby boy, Tyler, lay in the crib as she begged the officer not to take her away.

“Thank God, the police had mercy and left me and my baby alone,” said Nielsen, who later paid the debt. “But to send someone to arrest me two weeks after a massive surgery that takes most women eight weeks to recover from was just unbelievable.”

While I’m all for personal responsibility, and for following through on your debt obligations, some of the tactics being used by these debt collecters, and being followed up on by the law enforcement officials do seem a bit draconian. In some senses it seems like the debt collectors (credit sharks in suits as Dave Ramsey calls them) have taken over.

“The law enforcement system has unwittingly become a tool of the debt collectors,” said Michael Kinkley, an attorney in Spokane, Wash., who has represented arrested debtors. “The debt collectors are abusing the system and intimidating people, and law enforcement is going along with it.”

How often are debtors arrested across the country? No one can say. No national statistics are kept, and the practice is largely unnoticed outside legal circles. “My suspicion is the debt collection industry does not want the world to know these arrests are happening, because the practice would be widely condemned,” said Robert Hobbs, deputy director of the National Consumer Law Center in Boston.

Now if people are able to pay their debts, and are instead choosing to ignore their obligations and not pay, that’s one thing. If, however, they aren’t able to pay because of medical issues or other problems, why would you put them in jail?

Bail Is Often The Same Amount As The Debt

One thing people are finding once they’ve been put in jail is that their bail payment is set at the exact same amount of their debt owed.  When they post bail their money goes directly to the debt collector.

Hennepin County automatically sets bail at the judgment amount or $2,500, whichever is less. This policy was adopted four years ago in response to the high volume of debtor default cases, say court officials.

Some judges say the practice distorts the purpose of bail, which is to make sure people show up in court.

“It’s certainly an efficient way to collect debts, but it’s also highly distasteful,” said Hennepin County District Judge Jack Nordby. “The amount of bail should have nothing to do with the amount of the debt.”

If friends or family post a debtor’s bail, they can expect to kiss the money goodbye, because it often ends up with creditors, who routinely ask judges for the bail payment.

This does seem to be a bit shady – basically the law enforcement and judicial systems are being used as an extension of the debt collection agencies.   I’m sure the debt collectors will abuse this system since they’ve never been known for their fair debt collection practices.

How To Stay Out Of Jail For Your Debt

So how can you ensure that you’ll never end up on the wrong side of a jail cell door – especially if you have debt?

  • Don’t avoid bill collectors or warrants.
  • Make sure to read any documents you get from bill collectors or the courts.
  • If you get a summons and complaint, you are being sued. You must show up in court.
  • Respond promptly to a summons either denying or admitting to the debt.
  • Show up for all court hearings.

So to stay out of jail, follow up on your debts, and if you are being sued or given a court date – show up!  If you don’t you could end up losing by default, and have a warrant sworn out for your arrest.

What do you think about the ways that debt collectors are now using the law enforcement and judicial system to collect debts for them?  Do you think it is right? Should debtors be afforded more protections, or are they getting what they deserve? Should new laws be passed? Tell us your thoughts in the comments.

Last Edited: 29th July 2014

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    Share Your Thoughts:

  1. says

    The point you make about not avoiding your debts is the key.
    Confront your debts, negotiate with creditors, maintain payments even if you have to reduce them down to a token affordable amount.
    The thing is not to stop payment all together

  2. says

    The story about the mother that had the C-section is just sickening!
    YES – You should pay debt
    But to be thrown in jail is ridiculous

    1. The “punishment” doesn’t fit the “crime”
    2. Jails are already over crowded
    3. That will cost MORE money by sustaining someone in jail
    4. The Creditor STILL doesn’t get paid

    The fact is when you loan money to someone there is RISK. That is one of the major reasons for charging interest. The RISK is that they won’t pay back. It not right…but it does happen. Don’t like it…stop lending money!

    The methods should continue to be money based:
    – Garnish wages and tax returns
    – Impact Credit Report & Score
    – Civil lawsuit

    But to use the already overtaxed law enforcement agency as an extension of debt collectors is reprehensible!

    You struck a nerve with this one!

  3. says

    I’ve run across this many times – people completely ignoring their debt. They stick their heads in the sand and hope it just goes away. The best thing a person in debt can do is reach out to their creditors and find a way to work with them. If they are unwilling (as mine were…and very rudely if I might add), then it’s time to look into some sort of debt relief program. Confront your problems head on, and deal with them. it’s the only way to resolve them.

  4. Sera says

    I’m glad I found this article. (Very well written with in depth quoting of sources, btw.) I’ve been searching high and low for info on how to deal with a creditor, and this is the first article I found discussing how to deal with lawsuits, other than advice such as “if you have a court date, be sure to show up.”

    Apparently I’m being sued, which is a first, and I just found out yesterday when I got a call from a lady saying she was coming to my house (an hour from any town–in Minnesota, btw!) to serve me and sign for receiving some papers.I was frantic, wondering if I should avoid her or refuse to sign or what. Now I see I should probably receive the papers she’s serving me. When I told her a one day notice wasn’t much time, since we were planning to go to town today for supplies, she then got very rude, said she would tell the judge I was not cooperating, and she hung up on me.

    I’ve always paid bills on time, but several life events a couple years ago set us back, and we’re trying to get back on our feet. I’m not trying to avoid obligations, but we are hoping to not run out of fuel oil again this winter! I cannot afford an attorney, and am waiting for a call back from legal aid. Until then, let me know if you think I’m correct in agreeing to accept the papers this lady is going to serve me, or if I should not greet her at the door. Would that delay proceedings?

    Thanks in advance.

  5. Burdett says

    came across your article while researching whether my GF could go to jail for unpaid medical bills, and my research jives completely with what you’ve reported: NO, you can’t go to jail for debt, but you CAN go to jail for missing court-mandated appearances or payments which are a direct result of debt. which is BS, and it’s tragic that the all-holy dollar is being used in this way to coerce and force the hands of law-makers and law-enforcers (i say again – it is tragically irrelevant whether a cop AGREES with a law or not)

    now would everyone please realize how ignorant and privileged they all come across when the “solution” offered is to “manage your debt” and to “maintain payments”??? If you owe back rent and can’t afford groceries, paying off collections starts to drift down the priority list, and it’s not because they’re irresponsible or selfish, that’s basic self-preservation: you deal with today and live to fight another day.

    #isupportclasswarfare #povertycycle

  6. Jeanine Willner says

    The biggest fear of being put in prison for a debt not paid, is being raped or killed! I would rather kill myself. Yes., I am in debt up to my ears. I got carried away and I used bad judgement. I asked the bill collectors if there was a chance that we could split up the payments. I was told, no.

    Well here I am nearly 71 years old, and before I’m handcuffed and sent to jail, there will be photographers and reporters from the news stations. Once I know that I’m going to be arrested, I will take a handful of pills. I wish there were a way to take care of this, but I guess not.

    • says

      Jeanine, don’t make the mistake of a final “solution” to a temporary problem. There is hope. As long as you’re doing your best to keep up on court appearances, and trying to make payments, you should be fine. I’ll pray for you.

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