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Debtors Going to Jail For Being Poor?

The Chicago Sun Times published this article yesterday about creditors jailing their debtors for small amounts of debt. In sum, creditors are jailing debtors for debt, that was sometimes in fact forgiven or waived, that are small – as small as $250. The article also discusses how Illinois lawmakers are combating these practices. Now I will say that the article is somewhat misleading in that seems to imply that having debt is sufficient to end up in jail. To the contrary, the Supreme Court has long held that it is unconstitutional to be jailed for simply being poor. In other words, if you can’t pay a debt, you can’t go to jail because of it.

But you CAN go to jail if you fail to appear in court when there is a judgment against you. This is likely what is happening in the cases cited by the article. The creditors are likely getting default judgments and the defendant-debtor is not responding to court appearances. This is when the creditor can seek a warrant for a debtor’s arrest – and that is likely how these people end up in jail. This is why it is particularly useful that the current Illinois bill targeting this practice ‘would require court appearance notices to be served to a debtor’s home, rather than merely mailed.’ However, as the article does state, some judges have been too harsh as well. In any case, this is why it is extremely important to not ignore any court dates and to take any documents regarding lawsuits you receive seriously. There are public legal aid services that can help you, but make sure you get an attorney to represent your rights.

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