Can I Be Sent to Jail for Unpaid Debt?

Have you ever heard about the old debtor’s prisons that were popular up until the 19th century? Well, the key word there is “until”, since debtor’s prisons are no longer around. However, just because there aren’t debtor’s prisons anymore, doesn’t mean that creditors aren’t still threatening jail time if you don’t pay up on your debts.
So, the question remains, “can you be sent to jail for unpaid debts?” Yes, you can.

How Can I Be Sentenced to Jail Time for Unpaid Debts?

In the mid-1800’s, the U.S. government banned the practice of sending people to prison for unpaid civil debts (Fun fact: many of America’s founding fathers had debt problems, and many of them spent time in jail for it). Credit card debt and other consumer debts are considered civil debts.

Even if you are sued for an unpaid civil debt, you cannot be sent to prison for non-payment of that debt, but there are other circumstances where jail-time is a real possibility.
For example, not paying your taxes (the rules are always different when it’s the government’s money) or child support could result in a stay in the big house.

Even though both state and federal law has prohibited jail-time, or even the threat of jail-time, as a punishment for not paying your debts, creditors have recently started using loopholes to send borrowers to jail.

One such tactic is as follows: if you do fail to comply with a court order, the creditor may convince a judge to issue a warrant for your arrest for contempt. After your arrest, you will be jailed and your bail will be set. That bail amount will conveniently be the same amount as the amount of the creditor’s judgement against you.

Another example is when courts assess any fees, fines, and other expenses as criminal justice debt. Normally, you would not be jailed for failing to pay these fees and costs, but not paying them after they’ve been labeled criminal justice debt might also earn you a ticket to the slammer.

How Can You Protect Yourself from Debtor Imprisonment?

Many state attorneys and officials are slowly becoming aware of these abuses of power, and are working to remedy the situation. However, until then, you would do well to do everything else in your power to prevent becoming a victim yourself.
Here are a few ways to protect yourself:

  • Don’t ignore notices from the court
  • Be present at all hearings and exams
  • Talk with a bankruptcy attorney
  • File for Chapter 7 bankruptcy to have the debts in question discharged

If you have a lot of unpaid debt and are worried that a creditor may take action against you, consider filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. In a few short months you may be able to discharge most or all of your burdening debts, never having to worry about imprisonment, wage garnishment, harassment, or any of that again.

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