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A Return to Debtor’s Prisons?

June 11, 2010

DES MOINES, Iowa - Debtor's prisons were outlawed in the 19th century, but recent practices by debt collectors in Iowa have civil rights experts wondering if the prisons are back in a new form. Here's the tactic being used by some collection agencies - ask a judge to issue a warrant for the arrest of a debtor if they don't make good on a court-ordered payment.

Randall Wilson, legal director the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, says the practice is troublesome, yet perfectly legal.

"It does sound like debtor prison and I think for that reason you would expect the courts would be kind of leery of going that direction in the case of a person who truly couldn't pay their bills."

Even if jail is not imminent for someone behind on their bills, Wilson says the threat of being jailed could be used by collection agencies to harass people.

"My fear is that this is being used, if not to establish a debtor's prison, at least to threaten unsophisticated debtors."

Whether someone is actually imprisoned until they pay their debt depends on where they live, as it varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and judge to judge for how court orders are enforced. Due process would require a hearing before the judge to determine if the debtor willfully violated the court order.



Dick Layman, Public News Service - IA