In Missouri, debtors prison is alive and well
If you think the term 'body attachment' sounds like bad news, you're right. Critics say it's illegal, yet the practice remains common.
Debtors prisons may be illegal under the Missouri state constitution, but the practice of locking people up for unpaid debts is alive and well, according to recent reporting by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Using a little-known practice called "body attachments," debt collectors, often working for payday lenders, regularly succeed in getting debtors thrown behind bars.
Critics say the practice is illegal and wastes finite government resources.
The practice is also common in neighboring Illinois, where state leaders recently passed legislation limiting the circumstances in which creditors can get debtors jailed for failure to pay private debts.
"It is outrageous to think, in this day and age, that creditors are manipulating the courts, even threatening jail time, to extract whatever they could from people who could least afford to pay," Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who has spent the past year campaigning for her state's new law, told the newspaper.
Attorneys for creditors disagree. The arrests and jail time are actually meted out to punish people for failing to appear in court to discuss their debts, they point out.
"If they've had notice and they fail to appear, then they get what they deserve," Mitchell Jacobs, an attorney for creditors, told the Post-Dispatch.
Winding up in debtors prison is a three-step process. First, the creditor gets a civil judgment showing that the debt is legitimate and the debtor has failed to repay. Next, the creditor and debtor meet in court for what's called an "examination" of the debtor's assets, which the lender may be able to seize.
If the debtor fails to show up for the examination, the creditor can ask the court for a "body attachment," which functions like an arrest warrant. The debtor can then be arrested and held in jail until he or she appears in court or pays the bond. The bond is commonly set at the amount owed in the original debt.
"It's the judge saying, 'You didn't show up when we told you to, and I don't like it," Jacobs says.
But the system is easily abused, according to lawyers who represent low-income debtors. Creditors can request multiple examinations, increasing the likelihood that a debtor won't show up.
"They were dragging them back to court again and again, waiting for them to fail, so they could get a body attachment against them," Swearingen says.
The new law in Illinois requires courts to send two notifications to debtors before ordering an arrest, and bars creditors from obtaining repeat examinations unless the debtors' circumstances have changed. There is currently no effort afoot to limit the practice in Missouri.
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I have to assume a few of you chose to stop reading past the misleading headline, and not the article itself. The assumed victims were clearly jailed for failing to appear.
Clearly we must have limits on debt collectors authority and their ability to harrass, but a court ordered apeparance to show cause was the debtors' opportunity to have the court find in their favor, and they arbitrarily chose to ignore it. Sorry, but that's contempt.
The article doesn't say they don't have to pay their bills. But is putting debtors in jail really the best policy? The article states that the majority of these cases are with payday lenders, so the debtors must have jobs. How are they supposed to work to get money to pay the debts if they are in jail? Given the lack of space in most jails and the amount it costs to house an inmate I would prefer that jail be kept for criminals that are a danger to society. We don't have usury laws in my state (don't know about MO) so the payday lenders charge exorbitant interest rates. Clearly the loans are risky which explains the high rate. You want to make a risky loan and reap the rewards of high interest, you also reap the losses from the risk you are accepting. It's part of the cost of business which is built into the rate they are charging. There isn't any shortage of payday lenders in my state and they aren't going bankrupt. Why does a company get to privatize its gains but socialize its losses which is exactly what it's doing if the taxpayers have to pay the jail costs.
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