How to avoid going to jail for not paying your debts

Technically “debtors’ prison” is unconstitutional, but if you owe money to a government organization and cannot pay it off — or if you fail to show up in court for a private debt collection hearing — you could end up in jail.  You could even be charged room and board for the time you spend there!

As Alternet, an online news service, reports:  A 2010 report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lays out the breadth of this problem. Titled “In For a Penny: The Rise of America’s New Debtor Prisons,” the report examines how “day after day, indigent defendants are imprisoned for failing to pay legal debts they can never hope to manage. In many cases, poor men and women end up jailed or threatened with jail though they have no lawyer representing them.”

The most common reason for this is non-payment of fines for things like traffic tickets. But it also happens with some private debts.  Usually creditors or debt collectors do not go to court to collect debts that aren’t large enough to make it worth the expense, but if enough money is on the table, they will set a court date and if you don’t show up (and they may notify you incorrectly) they ask for an arrest warrant.  As the Brennan Center for Justice noted. “When debtors do not show up, agencies procure arrest warrants from courts, leading to incarceration of the debtors. Bail is usually set at an amount equal to or higher than the original fees and fines the defendants couldn’t pay in the first place. All this has amounted to a return of debtors prisons.”

If you want to avoid this, make sure you pay any fines you can when they are levied by a court; and if you can’t pay, be proactive.  Notify the court and ask for a payment plan, even if it’s only a couple of dollars a week.

If you get called to court by a private company, show up.  If you can’t pay the debt, tell the judge and ask for leniency. If you have a lot of debt you cannot pay, filing bankruptcy could be your best option.  Talk to a bankruptcy attorney.

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