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States all over the country are being sued by civil rights groups for aggressive debt collection by their courts. This has led to much discussion of what is being called a new debtor's prison system in the US, and also to some confusion.
Technically, you cannot go to jail for failure to pay a civil fine, like a loan. But in some states where consumer protections are not very strong, creditors can ensnare debtors in the court system. Failure to appear for hearings or otherwise respond to court orders arising from collections cases can result in warrants, jail time, and fines. The punishment is for disobeying court orders but the trouble still stems from an unpaid debt.
Civil rights groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center have sued in states around the country, seeking an end to the incarceration of the poor for failure to pay fines. Many of those cases stem from simple traffic violations.
Typically, failure to pay a ticket will result in increased fines and eventually, in some states, a warrant for arrest for not following court orders. Then the person who could not pay the ticket ends up in jail and owing more money. But being in jail does little for their ability to pay, so upon release they owe more fines and fees, which they may not pay, and the cycle continues.
These cases are distinct from civil debt collections, although in some states the result may be the same. Federal law prohibits incarceration for debt but states that allow aggressive collections tacitly allow creditors to use courts to ensnare debtors in a system that can imprison them.
Difficult but Important Distinctions
Although the end result is that people do end up in jail for their debts sometimes, it is important to make the difficult distinctions that the law does. In legal terms, people are incarcerated for disobeying court orders.
This leads to yet another important point, which is court-ordered support. Failure to pay support in a family law case can also land a person in jail. The reason, again, is that in those cases the debt is ordered paid by the court.
Talk to a Lawyer
If you are having trouble paying court-ordered support, traffic tickets, or your civil debts, get help. Talk to an attorney. Do not wait until it's too late.