Editorial: A Victorian era problem has been revisited


Most of us have it — in the form of student aid, though we have yet to feel the effects. In fact, outstanding student loans in the U.S. equal a total of more than $1 trillion. Baylor is an expensive school – many of us are undoubtedly contributing to that sum.

It is an undeniable fact that many of us are amassing debts larger than some small nation’s gross domestic product.

It’s a good thing debtors’ prisons no longer exist.

Debtor’s prisons – it’s an image we associate with the times of author Charles Dickens, whose own father was jailed for debt when Dickens was 12. Any person owing a sum of money could be thrown into jail, in theory to force them to repay their creditors. Yet, while imprisoned, how could they make money?

Eventually, someone saw the light — debtors prisons are illegal in the United States. Texas states explicitly in its legal codes that no person can be sent to jail for debt.

Thanks to a series of recent articles and the faltering economy, the spectre of this outmoded and ridiculously unprofitable institution has raised its head. Articles have appeared in the Wall Street Journal and NPR to discuss the issue and have raised concerns that have spread across the Internet.

These articles cite incidents in Illinois, Washington, Indiana and Tennessee.

In America, the imprisonment of debtors largely comes about because of our system of third-party collections. Sometimes the companies that own your debt sell it to a collection agency, who then becomes responsible for collecting the funds from you.

This can happen in instances of student loans made by private companies.

The collection agency, or creditor, can file a lawsuit against you that requires a court appearance. If you miss the appearance, a warrant can be issued for your arrest.

The warrant is issued generally for contempt of court, or failure to appear in some states.

Debtors are indeed being jailed, but not directly for owing money. Rather, the jail time comes about due to failing to respond to legal summons. According to the article by NPR, the collection agencies then try to leverage payments from the incarcerated.

The articles have raised concern that seems to lead to false conclusions. Debtors’ prisons are still illegal, although it is possible to go to jail as a consequence of being a debtor and skipping a court date.

What’s more disturbing is The Wall Street Journal ‘s finding that more than a third of states have laws that allow “borrowers who can’t or won’t pay” to be put in jail for charges such as contempt of court.

Right now, we have nothing to fear — except the fear of debt. But we should continue to monitor the situation should it escalate and agitate if necessary to ensure fair conditions for those who have borrowed money and lack the means to pay it back.

After all, we might soon be in a similar position.