Debt collectors, especially those who collect on unpaid medical debts, get to decide whether an individual goes to jail or not, according to a new article that was published yesterday by ProPublica, which looked at how “collection attorneys have turned this courtroom into a government-sanctioned shakedown of the uninsured and underinsured, where the leverage is the debtors’ liberty.”
The article follows a number of individuals in Coffeyville, Kansas, and their hearings before a local magistrate judge, who is a cattle rancher by day. When an individual who has received a summons does not show up for a hearing or what is known as a “debtor’s exam,” the judge has the power to issue a citation for contempt of court. In Coffeyville, according to the report, the judge gives the collection attorney the power to determine whether a citation is issued or not. When one is issued, and the individual is arrested and posts bail — usually $500 — the bail amount is put toward paying off the unpaid debt. As the collector, the attorney is entitled to a percentage of that payment, which the article implies means the attorney is using the court as a collector, instead of having the court return the bail money back to the individual.
“I don’t know whether the Legislature intended it to be used that way or not,” the magistrate judge said in the report. “I have not had enough pushback from the defendants’ side to give me the impression that I’m really abusing this badly.”
The article goes on to debate the constitutionality of applying bail to unpaid debts and looks at the collection process in great detail. It’s definitely worth your time.