A CBS MoneyWatch article by Alain Sherter entitled Jailed for $280: The Return of Debtors’ Prisons is just an awful piece of hack journalism – burying the critical facts to as to create a more emotionally compelling narrative.
It leads the reader to believe that debtors are being imprisoned because they owe money. You have to get to the third paragraph to find out that the individual isn’t, in fact, being jailed for owing money; notwithstanding the headline saying “Jailed for $280”.
Under the law, debtors aren’t arrested for nonpayment, but rather for failing to respond to court hearings, pay legal fines, or otherwise showing “contempt of court” in connection with a creditor lawsuit. That loophole has lawmakers in the Illinois House of Representatives concerned enough to pass a bill in March that would make it illegal to send residents of the state to jail if they can’t pay a debt.
And, even when the story kind of gives you the facts, it puts contempt of court in scare quotes and then calls the process a “loophole.” It’s not a “loophole.” The judge tells you to come to court, you disobey, and, guess what? The judge has the power to make you come to court and testify. That’s a feature of our legal system, not a bug. If you blow off a court order, you’re asking for trouble. The order is not an order to pay money — it’s an order to show up and testify. Poor people can answer questions too.