CRIMINALIZATION OF DEBT | INTERNET CENSORSHIP | EQUALITY
A new report on the criminalization of debt
Last week, the ACLU published a report entitled "A Pound of Flesh: The Criminalization of Private Debt." It details the widespread use of the criminal justice system in the collection of debts—including medical, credit card, auto, education and household—in many cases resulting in de facto debtor's jails.
"In 44 states, judges—including district court civil judges, small-claims court judges, clerk-magistrates, and justices of the peace—are allowed to issue arrest warrants for failure to appear at post-judgment proceedings or for failure to provide information about finances. These warrants, usually called 'body attachments' or 'capias warrants,' are issued on the charge of contempt of court.
At the request of a collection company, a court can enter a judgment against a debtor, authorize a sheriff to seize a debtor's property, and order an employer to garnish the debtor's wages.… In most of the country, an unpaid car loan or a utility bill that's in arrears can result in incarceration."
Link to the full report.
- The report was given a lengthy write-up at The Intercept. "Federal law outlawed debt prisons in 1833, but lenders, landlords and even gyms and other businesses have found a way to resurrect the Dickensian practice. With the aid of private collection agencies, they file millions of lawsuits in state and local courts each year, winning 95 percent of the time." Link.
- A brief overview of the history of debtors' prisons, leading to the upward trend of collectors' leveraging criminal consequences against debtors. Link.
- A 2011 paper titled "Creditor's Contempt" describes the procedural and doctrinal mechanisms linking collectors and courts, and the "difficult balance between the state's and creditors' interest in rigorous judgment enforcement and debtors' interest in imposing reasonable limitations on the coerciveness of debt collection." Link. And documentation of a Duke Law conference covers the criminalization of debt alongside discussions of credit scoring and consumer bankruptcy. Link.
- The criminalization of private debt dovetails with the more widely discussed issue of criminal justice debt resulting from fines and fees, which also leads to de facto debtor incarceration. Often called "legal financial obligations" (LFOs), these revenue-raising fees are levied for everything from warrants and case processing to parole check-ins and electronic monitoring devices. For more, see this 2010 report from the Brennan Center for Justice, this 2015 investigation from NPR, and this 2016 reform guide from Harvard's Criminal Justice Policy Program. (Also from CJPP, an interactive criminal justice debt policy mapping tool. Link.)
- In a 2014 post on their now-defunct blog House of Debt, Atif Mian and Amir Sufi (authors of a book by the same name) on the history of debt forgiveness. Link. (For attempts at exploiting the imperfections of debt markets to cancel various kinds of debt, see the Rolling Jubilee project, and its relative the Debt Collective.)