The days of the debtor prison in America are long over -- in theory. In reality, aggressive bill collectors are finding ways to use the legal process to criminalize being too poor to pay a bill.
Roughly 77 million people in this country -- about one-third of the entire American population -- have at least one unpaid bill that's gone to collections. Bill collectors illegally threaten many debtors with arrest in order to scare them into paying (whether they can afford it or not). They even manage to carry that threat out on thousands, using the civil court system to exact a bizarre form of punishment against a debtor who won't pay.
In 26 states, judges can issue arrest warrants when a bill collector files a civil claim against a debtor and the debtor fails to appear in court. In some cases, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) states that judges have done so over as little as $28. Technically, the debtor isn't being hauled to jail over the debt but over not appearing for the case regarding the debt.
In Ohio, officials say that "multiple" notices regarding unpaid debts are either sent via certified mail or delivered by hand to an individual before a warrant is issued. However, many debtors may not realize that their presence is required in court over a bill that they can't pay. They assume that a judgment will be entered against them, but they feel powerless to fight the process when the debt is legitimate.
There are options for consumers who are drowning in debt, however. If your financial situation has become impossible to manage, it's time to investigate the debt relief options that are available to you.