Some lawmakers, judges and regulators are trying to rein in the U.S. debt-collection industry’s use of arrest warrants to recoup money owed by borrowers who are behind on credit-card payments, auto loans and other bills.
More than a third of all U.S. states allow borrowers who can’t or won’t pay to be jailed. Judges have signed off on more than 5,000 such warrants since the start of 2010 in nine counties with a total population of 13.6 million people, according to a tally by The Wall Street Journal of filings in those counties. Nationwide figures aren’t known because many courts don’t keep track of warrants by alleged offense. In interviews, 20 judges across the nation said the number of borrowers threatened with arrest in their courtrooms has surged since the financial crisis began.
“I wish I could do it more,” said Piatt County Circuit Judge Chris Freese, who has heard hundreds of debt-collection cases. “It’s often the only remedy to get people into court and paying their debts.”
In one of those cases, Emmie Nichols, 26 years old, was arrested in June at her mother’s house after lawyers for Capital One Financial Corp. won an arrest warrant against her for skipping a court hearing about $1,159.87 she owed on a credit card from the company. The $500 bond that freed Ms. Nichols from the county jail was turned over to Capital One as a partial payment of the debt, court filings show. A Capital One spokeswoman declined to comment on Ms. Nichols.
Some judges are worried that the jump in debt-related arrest warrants is creating a modern-day version of debtors’ prison. The practice ended in 1833 after decades of controversy, since borrowers owing as little as 60 cents could be held indefinitely in squalid jails until they paid off their debt.