The Return of the “Debtors Prisons?” Across the U.S. people are being arrested and forced to work to pay off debt

Across the United States, low-income and working-class people in debt are being increasingly targeted by legislation introduced by state governments forcing Americans to work for as little as $10 per week.

In January, USA Today reported that this is exactly what happened to one Mississippi woman, Annita Husband, who had been convicted of embezzlement in 2009. As part of her sentence, she was ordered to prison where she would work for $7.25 per-hour, minus $11 per day for room and board, until she had repaid $13,000. Although the crime for which Husband was convicted carries a relatively minor sentence, but because her release was contingent upon the repayment of her debt, at approximately $235 per week, she would be expected to spend more than a year in prison.

Elsewhere across the country, similar states are reexamining “restitution programs” for people with outstanding debts. However, what is particularly alarming to some legal analysts is that an economic downturn could result in legislators opting for increasingly draconian laws that would see more and more people arrested for non-criminal debts and forced into what amounts to “modern day labor camps.”

Such laws were once common, especially in the Southern United States, and regained popularity there in the 1970s until they were deemed inefficient and expensive to operate. Nevertheless, in Mississippi alone, Judges are increasingly sending more and more debtors to prison until their outstanding bills are paid. Virtually all of those sentenced to serve time in a restitution program were convicted of minor offenses, not violent or otherwise dangerous crimes.

As it turns out, the case of Annita Husband is actually somewhat rare. More than half of those sentenced to serve time in the debtors prisons owed less that $3,600: some owed less than $700.

Today, more states are considering adopting variations on Mississippi’s restitution programs even outside the South causing some to raise concerns over the Constitutionality of some programs. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU):

“An estimated 77 million Americans have a debt that has been turned over to a private collection agency. Thousands of these debtors are arrested and jailed each year because they owe money. Millions more are threatened with jail. The debts owed can be as small as a few dollars, and they can involve every kind of consumer debt, from car payments to utility bills to student loans to medical fees. These trends devastate communities across the country as unmanageable debt and household financial crisis become ubiquitous…”

Pointing out that the United States Congress abolished the use of debtors prisons in 1833, private debt collecting agencies have been placing increasing pressure on the legal system to effectively bring the practice back by requesting that judges issue arrests warrants for people who fail to deal with civil debt judgments.

ACLU data revealed tens of thousands of warrants had been issued annually by states across the country, noting however than few states track the issuance of these warrants indicating that number of people arrested for unpaid debts may be much higher. So far, at least 26 states including Washington, Oregon, California, Texas, Arizona and many Midwestern states as well as many Southern and eastern states have been found to issue arrests warrants for civil (non-criminal) debts.

While federal and state consumer collection laws such as the Fair Debt Collection Practice Act (FDCPA), forbid debt collectors from using threats of arrest and criminal prosecution as a means to pressure those in debt, the practice continues and, according to legal experts, is growing.

The changing attitude of legislators across the US toward using arrest and imprisonment to collect debt is alarming to many, especially in light of the current economic climate which sees more and more people unable to pay for costly but necessary services such as healthcare. So far, the state of Vermont seems to have resisted the trend.