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Dickens wrote about the world where debtors prisons were common. It is the same world that gave us Karl Marx. If you believe that was long ago think again.
Six states (Arkansas, Arizona, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, and Washington) allow debt collectors to seek arrest warrants for debtors in default if all other collection methods have failed. Whether a debtor will actually be prosecuted or not varies from state to state, county to county, and town to town. The individual is taken into custody and is typically required to submit financial documentation to the courts (to facilitate seizure of assets or wage garnishment), although in some cases the individual may be held indefinitely until a payment plan is reached or the debt is paid in full, especially if the individual is insolvent
More than a third of all U.S. states allow borrowers who can’t or won’t pay to be jailed. Judges have signed off on more than 5,000 such warrants since the start of 2010 in nine counties with a total population of 13.6 million people, according to a tally by The Wall Street Journal of filings in those counties. Nationwide figures aren’t known because many courts don’t keep track of warrants by alleged offense. In interviews, 20 judges across the nation said the number of borrowers threatened with arrest in their courtrooms has surged since the financial crisis began.
Kyle Dewitt spent three days in jail because he was too poor to pay a fishing fine. Last spring, Dewitt was ticketed and fined $215 for fishing smallmouth bass out of season (Dewitt disputes the charge). But Dewitt, 19 years old with a fiancée and a nine-month-old son, lost his job at a grocery store in 2010 and has been out of work ever since. He couldn’t afford the $215 fine. Instead he offered to pay $100 up front, and repay the rest in a month. But Judge Raymond Voet of Ionia, Mich., refused.
That could be me before the blow-drying and eyeliner, and it’s definitely Al Szekeley at any time of day. A grizzled 62-year-old, he inhabits a wheelchair and is often found on G Street in Washington, D.C. — the city that is ultimately responsible for the bullet he took in the spine in Phu Bai, Vietnam, in 1972.
He had been enjoying the luxury of an indoor bed until December 2008, when the police swept through the shelter in the middle of the night looking for men with outstanding warrants. It turned out that Szekeley, who is an ordained minister and does not drink, do drugs, or cuss in front of ladies, did indeed have one — for “criminal trespassing,” as sleeping on the streets is sometimes defined by the law. So he was dragged out of the shelter and put in jail.
“Can you imagine?” asked Eric Sheptock, the homeless advocate (himself a shelter resident) who introduced me to Szekeley. “They arrested a homeless man in a shelter for being homeless?”