People regularly go to jail over private debt in the St. Louis area on both the Missouri and Illinois sides of the Mississippi River, says the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. If a creditor gets a civil judgment against a debtor, and the debtor doesn’t show, the creditor asks the court for a “body attachment.” That’s an order to arrest the debtor and hold him or her until a court hearing, or until the debtor posts bond.
The practice draws fire from legal aid attorneys and some politicians. They call it modern-day debtors prison, a way to squeeze money out of people with little legal knowledge. Debtors are sometimes summoned to court repeatedly, increasing chances that they’ll miss a date and be arrested. Critics note that judges often set the debtor’s release bond at the amount of the debt and turn the bond money over to the creditor — essentially turning publicly financed police and court employees into private debt collectors for predatory lenders. “You wouldn’t want to be spending taxpayer money to collect $400 and $500 debts. Don’t the county police have something better to do?” asks Rob Swearingen, attorney for Legal Services. Creditors’ lawyers say body attachments are necessary to get debtors to obey the courts. In Illinois, Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration and Attorney General Lisa Madigan have joined the chorus of critics. The result was a new law, signed by Quinn last month, restricting body attachments for civil debt. In Missouri, the practice goes on with little public opposition.