Unpaid Bills Land Some Debtors Behind Bars Debtors' prisons are illegal in every state, but more and more Americans are finding themselves behind bars as a result of unpaid debt, some for just a few hundred dollars. The state of Illinois is investigating creditors who might be abusing their power and sending debtors to jail.

Unpaid Bills Land Some Debtors Behind Bars

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Millions of Americans are struggling to pay off debts. And debt collectors have found a modern way to employ a very old tactic. Debtors prisons were abolished in this country well over a century ago. Yet some of today's debtors are shocked to find themselves in jail. Susie An reports from member station WBEZ in Chicago.

SUSIE AN, BYLINE: Imagine you're driving home and an officer pulls you over for having a loud muffler. But instead of sending you off with a warning, you're arrested and taken right to jail. That's what happened to Robin Sanders in Illinois.

ROBIN SANDERS: That's when I found out I had a warrant for failure to appear in Macoupin County. And I didn't know what it was about.

AN: Sanders owed $730 on a medical bill. She says she didn't even know a collection agency filed a lawsuit against her.

SANDERS: They say they send out these court notices and nobody gets them.

AN: Sanders spent four days in jail waiting for her father to raise $500 for her bail. That money was then turned over to the collection agency. Robin Sanders' story is an increasingly common one across the country - in Indiana, Tennessee and Washington.

Here's how it happens. A company will often sell off its debt to a collection agency, often called a creditor. That creditor files a lawsuit against the debtor requiring a court appearance. A notice is supposed to be given to the debtor. And if they fail to appear in court, a warrant is issued for their arrest.

Beverly Yang is a legal aid attorney with Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance. Yang says most debtors don't know their rights. In fact, she says some judges don't even know the debtors' rights. That could result in the debtor being intimidated into a pay agreement.

BEVERLY YANG: And I've seen this even when I'm standing in the courtroom as the legal aid attorney. The judge will ask if they can pay - how about $150 a month? How about $75 a month? How come you can't even pay $50 a month? Did you apply for a job last week?

AN: The Federal Trade Commission received more than 140,000 complaints related to debt collection in 2010. That's nearly 25,000 more than the previous year. Yang says some creditors are eager to use harsh tactics.

YANG: Whatever the creditors, or the creditors attorneys, can do to leverage some kind of payment, it will help their profits enormously because they have literally millions of these.

KEVIN KELLY: There's an assumption in what you're saying is that we would rather throw them in jail than work with them. And I don't find that to be true at all.

AN: That's Kevin Kelly, president of the Illinois Creditors Bar Association. He says members of his organization only issue warrants in extreme situations. Kelly says sometimes it's the debtor who's keeping information from the collectors. That prevents important documents from getting to the right place.

He says most collectors want to make reasonable arrangements, but it's difficult when the vast majority don't even respond to any notices sent to them. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan thinks more can be done. It's illegal in Illinois for people to be sent to jail because they're in debt. But Madigan thinks some creditors are abusing the law.

LISA MADIGAN: You wouldn't be in that predicament if you didn't have debt. I mean, you know, but for being in debt you wouldn't be in prison. And that essentially equates to being thrown in jail, you know, debtors prison.

AN: Madigan says courts need to be certain they have correct information to serve notices. She also says judges need to be properly educated in these proceedings to prevent a debtor from needlessly going to jail. Madigan says the state is also investigating agencies that it thinks are abusing the law. As for Sanders, she has a remaining balance of about $160 on her medical bill. But at least she now knows she won't have to go to jail for it.

For NPR News, I'm Susie An in Chicago.

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