Some Americans Are Being Thrown Into Jail For Unpaid Debts

Illustration by Janet Sung.
The United States abolished the institution of debtors' prisons in 1833, making it illegal under federal law to imprison people for unpaid debts. (States were left to follow suit on their own through the 20th century.)
Hauling people off to jail for falling behind on their financial obligations sounds like an old Dickensian practice, but some legal experts around the country have argued that the matter is hardly resolved. A recent report from the ACLU found that thousands of debtors, mostly in Black and Latino communities, "are arrested and jailed each year because they owe money" and millions more are threatened with incarceration. "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," the organization said.
As recently as December 2016, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded an Obama era guidance that urged courts to prohibit jailing poor people who could not afford to pay traffic tickets or court fines.
"It's like being jailed because you're poor," Ali told The Washington Post.
Amy Hennen, a civil legal aid attorney with the Maryland Volunteer Lawyer Service, wrote an op-ed about the practice, formally known as "body attachment," in The Baltimore Sun last year. Ahead, she tells Refinery29 how this tactic has evolved over time, what recourse impacted people have, and the importance of knowing your rights even in the midst of dire financial straits.

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