Breast cancer survivor handcuffed and thrown in jail over a mistaken $280 medical bill as 'debtor's prisons' return to the U.S

Daily Mail | April 20, 2012

A breast cancer survivor who was sent to prison over a mistaken $280 medical bill has highlighted the return of debtor's prisons in the U.S.

Illinois resident Lisa Lindsay had received the medical bill in error and was told she did not have to pay up.

However, the bill was turned over to a collection agency and state troopers arrived at her home and took her away in handcuffs.

The Illinois teaching assistant eventually had to pay more than $600 to escape prison, as legal fees were added to the bill.

'I paid it in full so they couldn't do it to me again,' said Lindsay whose plight has alerted law-makers in Illinois to the growing problem.

The case of Lindsay as well as others suggests that more people than ever before in the U.S are being thrown in 'debtor's prisons' for not being able to pay back loans.
Disabled roofer Jack Hinton sat in jail until he could come up with $300 on a debt he owed a lumberyard.

According to a hearing transcript, a central Illinois judge listened to Hinton's story, noted he'd recently been paid after finishing a roofing job, and said: 'Mr. Hinton, you had $1,000 in your pocket, you chose to spend it elsewhere in violation of the court order. That lands you in jail.'

Hinton's wife took out a loan to buy his freedom. Her $300 went to the debt collector.
Debt collectors have become so aggressive claim some that poor people who are behind on payments of as little as $25 a month are being sent to jail.

Even though debtor's prisons have been illegal since 1833, lenders are being accused of exploiting legal loopholes to have their borrowers found and sent to jail until they pay up.

Acting within the law, debtors aren't arrested  for nonpayment, rather for failing to arrive to court hearings thereby falling foul of contempt of court laws.

This results in a police arrest warrant being issued for 'failure to appear', the debtor is tracked down, packed off to jail and can only get out by paying the set bail bond which of course matches the amount owed.

Affecting everyone who owes money from health care services to automobile loans, debt collectors are using publicly funded courts, sheriff deputies and county jails to pressure people with prison to pay back their money reports CBS News.

And now some state legislators are trying to plug this loophole by making court notices be served in person rather than mail, arrest warrants to expire after a year and the bail bond returned to the debtor not the lender.

Following a spate of hard-working people being forced to spend time in prison, state legislators across the U.S are examining ways to change the law.

In fact in Illinois alone, legislation designed to plug loopholes aimed at debtors is waiting to pass through the state senate.

'Creditors have been manipulating the court system to extract money from the unemployed, veterans, even seniors who rely solely on their benefits to get by each month,' said Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan last month in a statement voicing support for the legislation.

'Too many people have been thrown in jail simply because they're too poor to pay their debts. We cannot allow these illegal abuses to continue.'

A 2010 report by the American Civil Liberties Union that examined five states - Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Washington -- discovered that people were being imprisoned at 'increasingly alarming rates' through legal debts.

Some of the examples cited included a woman who arrested four individual times for failure to pay $251 in fines and costs related to a fourth-degree misdemeanor conviction.

Another example that the ACLU used was of a mentally ill juvenile imprisoned by a judge for a conviction for stealing school supplies.

'The sad truth is that debtors' prisons are flourishing today, more than two decades after the Supreme Court prohibited imprisoning those who are too poor to pay their legal debts,' said the ACLU.

'In this era of shrinking budgets, state and local governments have turned aggressively to using the threat and reality of imprisonment to squeeze revenue out of the poorest defendants who appear in their courts.'

An unemployed Urbana resident, Michelle Gilliam, was picked up by sheriff's deputies and jailed twice for missing court dates as a debt collector pursued her in court for a decade, she and her attorney said.

Gilliam got help from a nonprofit group offering free legal services and the court dismissed the case, essentially forgiving her debt on the grounds she was too poor to pay.

While critics say that these measure essentially criminalise poverty, law-makers recognise the problem.

Advocates in Minnesota unsuccessfully tried to pass a bill that would have allowed debtors to fill out an affidavit stating their income and assets when the sheriff arrived at the door to execute a warrant, according to Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office.

'More people are unemployed, more people are struggling financially and more creditors are trying to get their debt paid,' said Madigan.

Learning of the problem last year, Madigan and her office were getting reports of impoverished people pursued through the courts for back rent, medical debt and payday loans, she said.

One woman who owed money on a vacuum cleaner spent weeks in jail before someone lined her up with free legal services.

'We're using public resources to collect private debts,' explained Madigan.
'At what point do you say it's illegal?'

In court, debtors rarely have an attorney, while creditors hire experienced legal representation.

Lawsuits against debtors are a last resort, said Eric Mock of the Illinois Collectors Association. 'A consumer that has been arrested or jailed can't pay a debt. We want to work with consumers to resolve issues,' he said.