For most people, the first question that comes to mind when they see someone in prison is—what did they do to end up behind bars? Did they kill someone? Did they commit assault? Maybe they stole something?
Our minds tend to land on major “violent crimes,” like murder, rape, and assault, as the reason that most people are behind bars. But the truth is, the legal definition of “violent” and “non-violent” crimes vary among states. If you really break down the numbers, most people are locked up for low-level offenses and things that have nothing to do with actual violence or harming others.
One of the main barriers to criminal justice reform is the common misunderstanding of what a “violent crime” actually refers to. It often has very little to do with actual or intended harm.
As the Prison Policy Initiative noted in their latest report, out of the nearly two million people locked up in the United States, 20% are in prison for non-violent drug offenses. And nearly 19% are locked up for violating their parole (no employment or housing, positive drug tests, etc…). There’s also a strong percentage of prison inmates who are serving lengthy sentences for things like property and car theft, burglary, and fraud.
Inside our city and county jails, about 25% of the population is locked up for misdemeanors that can range from jaywalking to DUI. The vast majority of people in jail have not been convicted of a crime, but they sit in jail because they can’t afford to bond out.
I share all of this information to back up my claim that the majority of people who are locked up in this country shouldn’t be there, or they’ve been there so long that they should be released. If we focused on incarcerating those who commit truly violent crimes and those who should be segregated from society, we would cut our prison population by more than half.
This introduction was also my long way of saying that there are many things that a person can do in this country that could lead to a prison sentence. I know this from experience, since I did four years for basically the crime of knowing there was marijuana in the house that I lived in.
But what about debt and paying bills? If people are sitting in jail for not being able to make bail, is it possible that people are sitting in prison for not paying their debts? Do we have debtors prisons in the United States? Can you go to prison for something like not paying your phone contract?
In this blog post, I will cover the following topics:
A debtors’ prison is exactly what the name implies—it’s a prison for people who are unable to pay their debts. Debtors’ prisons are a common part of world history, no matter the country or culture. And up until the mid-19th century, they were a part of the United States.
Debtors’ prisons were usually some form of a locked workhouse, where a destitute person would be incarcerated until they were able to work off their debt via labor, or until they were able to secure the money from the outside to pay the balance owed.
Over the past two centuries, bankruptcy laws have made prison terms as punishment for debt or indigence essentially obsolete throughout most of the world.
However, current criminal justice reform activists in the United States point to the fact that people can still be incarcerated for unpaid criminal/court fees. People can also be put in prison for unpaid child support and back taxes.
There have also been civil cases where a judge has ordered someone to serve time in prison for failing to appear in court for a debt proceeding. This is technically not a crime of indigence, but the crime of disobeying a judge’s order.
One of the earliest pieces of federal legislation in the United States that was signed into law by President George Washington was the Debtors’ Prison Relief Act of 1792. Which established penal regulations and restrictions for incarcerating someone over property debt, tax evasion, and tax resistance.
Many states in Colonial America followed the British model of debtors’ prisons, and they remained prevalent until the mid-1800s. Because Americans faced economic hardships after the War of 1812, the population in debtors’ prisons swelled. Which, in turn, put a spotlight on the plights of the poor for the first time in American society.
Criticism of debtors’ prisons continued to increase throughout the 19th century, and developing US bankruptcy laws started to restrict imprisonment for most civil debts. Alternatives started to appear—like poorhouses and poor farms.
Then, in 1833, the US eliminated the imprisonment of debtors under federal law and left the practice of using debtors’ prisons to the states. By 1849, all state debtors’ prisons were closed.
We are not lawyers or accountants, but we can give you a general idea of what happens in the 21st century when you don’t pay your debts in the United States. Small unpaid bills (utilities, consumer debt) will negatively affect your credit report, and most likely make it impossible for you to borrow money or create other utility accounts in the future. But, these kinds of unpaid bills won’t land you in prison.
If you fall behind on things like car payments and mortgage payments, those items will ultimately be repossessed and will negatively affect your credit score. Not being able to pay for your car or house won’t put you in prison in the United States.
When your debt load becomes too much for you to handle, that’s when you can file for bankruptcy. This means you won’t have to pay the money you owe (unless you negotiate and commit to keep your house, car, etc…via a payment plan). This won’t put you in prison unless you commit some kind of bankruptcy fraud.
Like I mentioned earlier, the two main unpaid debts that can put you in prison are unpaid taxes and unpaid child support. You can also be put in prison for unpaid court costs and criminal fees after being convicted of a crime, or for not showing up for a civil debt court appearance. The extent that these kinds of debtors can be prosecuted varies from state to state.
When it comes to today’s blog post question—can you go to prison for not paying a phone contract?—the answer is no. A consumer debt like an unpaid phone contract will not result in a prison sentence. However, it can cause serious problems for your personal finances.
The penalties for an unpaid phone bill include disconnected service, a ruined credit score, collection calls, and possibly even a lawsuit.
Unpaid phone bills are considered a civil debt, which means a creditor can take you to civil court and a judge can issue a ruling on the matter. However, the worst thing a judge can do is issue a judgment that forces you to pay the creditor. Which will most likely result in a wage garnishment. It will severely impact your credit score. But again, no prison time.
If a debt collector threatens you with jail time for not paying your phone bill, or any other debt for that matter, that is illegal. If this happens, document the threat and be prepared to sue.
Has a debt collector ever threatened you with jail time? Let us know in the comments below.
Sources: Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2022 https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2022.html What happens if I stop paying my phone contract? https://progressivedebtrelief.com/blog/f/what-happens-if-i-stop-paying-my-phone-contract#:~:text=Late%20Fees%20and%20Warnings,1.5%25%20of%20the%20outstanding%20balance. Defining Violence: Reducing Incarceration by Rethinking America's Approach to Violence https://justicepolicy.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/jpi_definingviolence_final_report_9.7.2016.pdf Federal Bureau of Prisons Inmate Offense Statistics https://www.bop.gov/about/statistics/statistics_inmate_offenses.jsp Why does the US still have debtors prisons? https://finesandfeesjusticecenter.org/articles/us-debtors-prisons/ Debtors' Prisons https://www.aclu.org/issues/racial-justice/race-and-criminal-justice/race-and-criminal-justice-debtors-prisons The Return Of Debtor’s Prisons: Thousands Of Americans Jailed For Not Paying Their Bills https://thinkprogress.org/the-return-of-debtors-prisons-thousands-of-americans-jailed-for-not-paying-their-bills-761f1da65b82/
Natalie earned her Bachelors degree in Journalism from the University of Kansas, and has worked in television and radio during her career. When she was a 19-year-old sophomore at KU, she got her first on-air job as a sports reporter for a CBS-TV affiliate. In 2013, she was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the possession and production of marijuana. She was released in 2017. We've kept her last name off of our website so that she does not experience any professional hardship for her contributions.
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