A new report says that thousands of people across 26 states are arrested and jailed each year due to outstanding debts such as unpaid medical bills and car loans. The practice violates due process rights and was abolished by the federal government in 1883.
The American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) “A Pound of Flesh: The Criminalization of Private Debt” found that private debt collectors use the criminal justice system to punish debtors, and that this punishment impacts Black and Latinx communities disproportionately due to racial gaps in poverty.
“The impact of predatory debt collection practices falls most heavily on minority communities, who often lack the savings, financial assets, or inherited wealth to avoid financial disaster,” Jennifer Turner, author of report, said in a statement. “And some studies show there are marked racial disparities in which communities debt collectors choose to target for lawsuits.”
The report estimates that about one in three Americans has debt that has been turned over to private collection companies. These companies then partner with local courts to issue arrest warrants for unpaid civil debts. In some cases, that debt amounts to just a few dollars.
Although states prohibit imprisonment for the inability to pay civil debts, the report notes that many judges are authorized to hold debtors in contempt of court at the request of collection agencies.
In many cases reviewed by the ACLU, people jailed or threatened with imprisonment are economically vulnerable Americans who live paycheck to paycheck, or are recovering from the loss of a job or mounting medical bills.
The report includes several stories of people who have fallen victim to the practice. They include an Indiana mother of three who was imprisoned for unpaid medical bills for cancer treatment, and a Utah man who committed suicide while jailed for an unpaid ambulance bill.
Because courts that arbitrate civil debt cases do not record race data, the report could not document racial disparities in debt-related arrest warrants. But the ACLU notes that these warrants are most often issued after traffic offenses or in searches of public housing residents, policing practices that the organization says disproportionately affect Black and Latinx people.
The report points to other studies that uncovered racial disparities in debt collection lawsuits, including a ProPublica study that found that court judgments from debt collection lawsuits are twice as high in Black communities than in mostly White ones. And another study from the New Economy Project found that the 10 New York state zip codes with the highest debt default judgments are predominantly communities of color.