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It's not a crime to owe money, and debtors' prisons were abolished in the United States in the 19th century. But people are routinely jailed for debt. "The law-enforcement system has unwittingly become a tool of the debt collectors," said Michael Kinkley, an attorney in Spokane, Washington (map), who has represented debtors. "The debt collectors are abusing the system and intimidating people, and law enforcement is going along with it."
Take Joy Uhlmeyer, who had been arrested while driving home to Richfield, Minn., after a visit with her mother. Uhlmeyer spent a night in a holding cell. Then, handcuffed in a squad car, she was taken to Minneapolis (map) for booking. Finally, after 16 hours in limbo, jail officials fingerprinted Uhlmeyer and explained her offense.
Last spring, Deborah Poplawski was digging for coins to feed a parking meter when she saw the flashing lights of a police car. She was arrested, not for parking illegally, but for a small credit card debt. How much? Thanks to interest and fees, Poplawski was on the hook for a lot more than her original debt. Less than a month earlier, she learned by chance that she had an outstanding warrant. A debt buyer had sued her, but she says nobody served her with court documents. She spent nearly 25 hours in the Hennepin County (map) jail. The judge told her to fill out a form listing her assets. A debt collection firm used this information to seize her bank account.