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Collection Tactics Lead Some Debtors To Jail

Doug Nadvornick

The United States outlawed debtors' prisons in 1833. In addition the Washington, Oregon and Idaho state constitutions all prohibit judges from jailing people for being in debt. But in some cases today people are still going to jail, not because of the debts themselves, instead because they miss a court appearance. Now critics say arrest warrants are not an effective way to collect a debt. Correspondent Doug Nadvornick collaborated with independent journalist Harris Meyer on this report.


One Saturday night in July, Janelle Leslie was home with her three children near the town of Newport, Washington. She was worried about an unwanted visitor, so she asked a local sheriff's deputy to stop by.

Leslie: "After talking with him about some things, they had taken my drivers' license number and social security number down and ran a check. And it come back that I had a warrant."

A warrant for her arrest — all it said was she had failed to comply with a court order. She was completely befuddled.

Leslie: "It was in front of family. It was in front of children. And I called them for help and I'm the one that ends up getting in trouble. It was pretty hurtful. It was pretty embarrassing."

Leslie spent the night in jail. A few weeks later, still in the dark about her situation she went to court in Yakima.

Leslie: "I had no idea of what I had been arrested for until it come across that it was Yakima Adjustment Service. And then I kind of clued in that it had been a collection bill."

The bill was for $900. It went back five years to when Leslie's son had an MRI after a car accident. She thought the state covered the bill since her son was on Medicaid. It turns out though the state didn't pay it. So the case was turned over to a collection agency. In the meantime Leslie moved her family to Alabama and missed a court appearance in Yakima.

Leslie: "I had no clue. I had no clue."

It's not clear how many debtors like Leslie are jailed in Washington for not showing up to court. But Fred Corbit believes jail should not be an option for debt cases.

Corbit: "Yes, I'm against it. It just doesn't make any sense."

Corbit is a senior attorney for the Northwest Justice Project in Seattle which represents people with debt problems.

Corbit: "If you want to get people to pay back their debts, the best thing to do is let them go out and earn a living and then a portion of their wages can be garnished. But putting someone in jail is just a punitive measure and it serves no real purpose."

But collection attorneys in Yakima County disagree. They say the threat of jail is a powerful incentive for people to pay their bills.

Attorney Jim Hurley represents the Yakima collection agency that went after Janelle Leslie. On this day he has a pile of cases before the court. In five of those cases where people didn't show for their court appearance he's asking for a warrant for their arrest.

Hurley: "We have someone who incurred a bill, who didn't pay the bill, who ignored the billing from the original creditor. Who very often ignored the notice from a pre–collect service, ignored the notices from the collection agency before any lawsuit gets started."

Hurley says he asks for about 60 arrest warrants a year. Of that 60 Hurley estimates one or two dozen debtors are actually jailed. He doesn't apologize for it.

Hurley: "And that court order has bold–faced type. It says, 'if you don't obey this order, you can go to jail.' The purpose here isn't to arrest the person. The purpose is to bring them before the court so that the court can deal with them."

Nonetheless when a debtor is arrested they have to post bail anywhere from a few $100 to a $1000 or more. In some cases the amount of bail they pay is equal to the amount they owe says Yakima County Presiding District Court Judge Kevin Roy.

Roy: "If it's cash bail, sometimes the creditor's attorney will ask that that money be applied to the debt. Now, if the debtor is there and agrees to that, typically I will allow that to go ahead and happen."

Critics say this practice makes the criminal justice system an arm of collection agencies. And in fact the Federal Trade Commission is recommending Congress not allow bail money to go to collection agencies. Federal regulators say the practice gives the mistaken though powerful impression that people are jailed to force them to pay their debts.

Now even some of the debt collectors themselves are starting to turn away from the threat of jail.

An attorney talking in a Spokane courtroom: "This is a motion and an affidavit for judgment."

In this Spokane County District Courtroom, collections attorneys say they're seeking fewer warrants.

Roecks: "Basically we're not using that any longer. We've found that we have better luck with other collection means."

Spokane Valley Attorney Marc Roecks says there's a serious downside to seeking warrants for debtors. There have been several cases of mistaken identity.

Roecks: "And if so, there could be civil liability for wrongful arrest."

Roecks says he has found it's more effective to use the carrot approach than the stick. One debtor who agrees with that point is Joey Rektor of Spokane. He was arrested after a financial dispute with his divorce lawyer. Rektor failed to answer a court summons and says the case nearly drove him into bankruptcy.

Rektor: "If you have a debt from somebody and you incarcerate them and they lose their job, what have you gained? You've gained nothing. So it's kind of a waste of time."

Still supporters insist the heavy handed tactic of jail forces some debtors to pay up. But in the case of Janelle Leslie whose story we heard earlier, it didn't work out that way. In the end the collection agency wrote off her son's $900 MRI and didn't end up getting a dime from her.

I'm Doug Nadvornick in Yakima.

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