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One in three Americans has been reported to a private collection agency with the majority of cases affecting Latin American and African-American communities.
The United States, where the streets are paved with gold and US$28 can send a young single mother or an 80-year-old grandmother to jail for a week or longer.
In a world where an estimated 77 million citizens are weighed down with hundreds of dollars in debt, thousands are sent to jail every year, says a new report, ‘A Pound of Flesh’ published Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Despite the fact that debtors’ prisons were eliminated from the civil system in the mid-1800’s, hundreds of African-American and people of Latin American descent wind up in prison with U.S. Marshals citing bounced checks, unpaid water bills or student loans as they are carted off to the nearest federal institution.
The ACLU’s report is the first to analyze the private debt collection industry across the U.S. According to its author, Jennifer Turner, a human rights research at ACLU, “The private debt collection industry uses prosecutors and judges as weapons against millions of Americans who can’t afford to pay their bills.”
More than 6,000 debt collection firms operate in the United States, collecting billions of dollars each year and keeping a high percentage of their gains for the trouble.
Turner analyzed over 1,000 cases of civil court-issued arrest warrants for debtors and found that a number of arrests have been made for debts as little as $10, bank errors, and non-existent charges. One in three Americans has been reported to a private collection agency with the majority of cases arising from minority sectors.
“Consumers have little chance of justice when our courts take the debt collector’s side in almost every case—even to the point of ordering people jailed until they pay up,” she said.
In one case cited in the report, a disabled woman with a prosthetic leg was shackled by her waist and feet by two armed U.S. marshals before being put in jail overnight.
“They had a warrant for my arrest and I asked them for what, he didn’t say what it was for. He said, ‘He’ll tell you later,’” said Tracie Mozie of Dickinson, Texas, who found later she was imprisoned for failing to pay a US$1,500 federal student loan from 1986 which mushroomed to US$13,000 in interest and fees.
However, Mozie was luckier than some. Other debtors could be held as long as two weeks for an inflated phone bill.
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