The Consequences & Morality of the Return of U.S. Debtors’ Prisons

Eric Cheng is an intern with the Institute for Policy Studies.

The United States claims to be the land of opportunity, but more and more Americans lack the resources to get ahead, let alone stay afloat. However, the condition of the vulnerable poor and the squeezed middle is not just the result of a lack of opportunity. Increasingly, it is simply the result of mistreatment.

Mistreatment is often subtle. No camera can dramatically depict wage theft or failing schools the way it can depict a dramatic robbery. Still, there are times when obviousness trumps subtlety.

This is the case with the return of debtors’ prisons.

No, banks and collection agencies cannot maintain dungeons in their office basements — the United States abolished debt-related imprisonment in 1833. But, according to a CBS Money Watch report, over a third of U.S. states now allow police to jail people for owing all matter of debts, from medical bills to credit card and auto loans.

Now, debtors aren’t technically arrested for non-payment. Instead, they are arrested for showing contempt of the court in connection with a creditor lawsuit. All it takes is failure to show up to court. Regardless of whether USPS delivered the court summons to the wrong address or debt collectors intentionally discarded the summons.

More and more cash-strapped governments use the threat of prison to raise revenues from the poorest of defendants. In a way, this is just another method governments use to try to resolve budget gaps by extracting payment from lower and middle-income people. Another thing cities have done to try to raise revenue is encourage the development of casinos. But there is a big difference. At least with casinos, people choose to squander their money. Debtors’ prisons simply coerce.

Such coercion has real human consequences. Lisa Lindsay, a breast cancer survivor, was jailed by Illinois state troopers for failing to pay a $280 medical bill she did not actually owe. She ultimately paid $600 to settle the charges. Similarly, Robin Sanders, also of Illinois, spent four days in jail over $730 she owed on a medical bill. Unaware of a lawsuit that a collection agency had filed against her, Sanders was only released after her father raised $500 for her bail.

Thousands of Americans like Lindsay and Sanders have already been jailed for outstanding bills.

Putting aside false accusations of outstanding debt — the imprisonment of those in debt raises fundamental moral questions: does this nation really want to return to an era where people are locked up for outstanding debts? Does this nation want to jail debtors even if they, unlike Lindsay and Sanders, lack the connections and resources to resolve their balance sheets?

America must answer these questions. Its answers will clarify if this nation wants to respect all of its citizens or if it wants to exact hardship for hardship’s sake.