State lawmakers target practice of jailing debtors
The Associated Press April 18, 2012 8:08PM
In this photo taken April 1, 2012, Jack Hinton, a sporadically employed roofer, poses at his home in Kenney, Ill. Hinton was sent to jail by a central Illinois judge until he could come up with $300 on a debt he owed a lumberyard. In an effort to give more rights to people like Hinton, some lawmakers in Springfield are pushing a bill that would make it harder to jail poor people who miss court dates or are found in contempt of court as they struggle with unpaid debts. (AP Photo/Herald & Review, Jim Bowling)
Updated: May 21, 2012 8:16AM
CHICAGO — Jailed for unpaid debts? It happened to breast cancer survivor Lisa Lindsay.
She got a $280 medical bill in error and was told she didn’t have to pay it. But the bill was turned over to a collection agency, and eventually state troopers showed up at her home and took her to jail in handcuffs.
Debt collectors have become so aggressive in some parts of Illinois that they commonly use taxpayer-financed courts, sheriff’s deputies and county jails to squeeze poor people who fall behind on small payments of $25 or $50 a month, according to supporters of the proposed legislative reforms. Lawmakers in Springfield are pushing to make it harder to jail poor people who miss court dates or are found in contempt of court as they struggle with unpaid debts — an aggressive practice that got worse, some say, during the recession.
Lindsay, a teaching assistant from Herrin in southern Illinois, ended up paying more than $600 because legal fees had been added to the original amount.
“I paid it in full so they couldn’t do it to me again,” Lindsay said.
The Illinois bill would require court appearance notices to be served to a debtor’s home, rather than merely mailed. It would require arrest warrants to expire after a year, and it would return most bail money to the debtor, rather than allow it to be used to pay off the debt.
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.
The problem has surfaced in other states, but there is no model legislation. 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.
Madigan, a supporter of the bill, said informal traditions in some Illinois courtrooms “have allowed these abuses to occur.” The recession heightened the problem, she said.
“More people are unemployed, more people are struggling financially and more creditors are trying to get their debt paid,” Madigan said.
The bill, which has passed the House, is supported even by groups representing debt collectors and their attorneys, who agree with Madigan that some judges and attorneys have gone too far. Judges will retain the discretion to issue arrest warrants and to jail debtors for contempt.