For most people, when they see someone in prison, the first question that comes to mind is – what did they do to end up in prison? Did they kill someone? Did they attack? Maybe they stole something?
Our attention tends to focus on major “violent crimes” such as murder, rape, and battery, which are why most people go to jail. But the truth is, the legal definitions of “violent” and “nonviolent” crimes vary from state to state. If you really break down the numbers, most people are locked up for low-level crimes and things that have nothing to do with actual violence or hurting others.
One of the major hurdles to criminal justice reform is the lack of understanding of what is “violent crime“Real meaning. It usually has little to do with actual or expected harm.
As the Prison Policy Initiative in its latest report, of the nearly 2 million people imprisoned in the United States, 20 percent are for nonviolent drug offenses. Nearly 19 percent were incarcerated for parole violations (no job or housing, positive drug test, etc.). A large percentage of prison inmates are also serving long sentences for crimes such as property and auto theft, burglary and fraud.
About 25 percent of people in our city and county jails are behind bars for misdemeanor offenses ranging from jaywalking to DUI. The vast majority of people who go to jail have no convictions, but they’re in jail because they can’t afford bail.
I share all this information to back up my claim that most of the people being held in this country shouldn’t be there, or they’ve been there so long that they should be released. If we focus on incarcerating those who actually commit violent crimes and those who should be socially segregated, we will cut the prison population by more than half.
This introduction is also my tirade, there are many things a person can do in this country that can lead to jail time. I know this from experience because I basically committed a crime for four years knowing I had marijuana in the house I lived in.
But what about debt and paying bills? If people go to jail for not being able to bail, is it possible for people to go to prison for not paying their debts? Do we have debtors’ prisons in the US? Would you go to jail for not paying your phone contract or something?
In this blog post, I will cover the following topics:
- A Brief History of America’s Debtor’s Prison
- What happens if you don’t pay your debts?
- Consequences of Not Paying Your Phone Contract
A Brief History of America’s Debtor’s Prison
A debtor’s prison, as the name suggests, is a prison for those who are unable to pay their debts. Debtors’ prisons are a common part of world history, regardless of country or culture. They were part of the United States until the mid-19th century.
A debtor’s prison was usually some form of locked workhouse where the destitute would be held until they could pay off their debts through labor, or until they could obtain external funds to pay what they owed.
Over the past two centuries, bankruptcy laws have made imprisonment as a punishment for debt or poverty largely obsolete in much of the world.
However, current criminal justice reform activists in the U.S. point out that people can still be imprisoned for non-payment of criminal/court costs. People can also go to jail for unpaid child support and delinquent taxes.
There are also civil cases where a judge sentences someone to prison for failing to appear in a debt lawsuit. It’s not technically a crime of poverty, but a crime of disobedience to a judge’s order.
One of the first federal legislation in the United States was the Debtor’s Prison Relief Act of 1792, which was signed into law by President George Washington. The Act sets out the penal provisions and limitations for the imprisonment of a person for property debts, tax evasion and tax resistance.
Many states in the American colonies followed the British model of debtor’s prisons, and they remained common until the mid-1800s. As Americans faced economic hardship after the War of 1812, the population in debtors’ prisons exploded. This, in turn, brought attention to the plight of the poor for the first time in American society.
Criticism of debtor’s prisons continued to grow throughout the 19th century, and the development of US bankruptcy laws began to limit prison terms for most civil debts. Alternatives began to emerge—such as workhouses and poor farms.
Then, in 1833, the United States removed federal law from incarcerating debtors, leaving the use of debtor’s prisons to the states. By 1849, all state debtor prisons were closed.
What happens if you don’t pay your debts?
We’re not lawyers or accountants, but we can give you an idea of what happens when America doesn’t pay its debts in the 21st century. Small unpaid bills (utility, consumer debt) can negatively impact your credit report and most likely prevent you from borrowing money or creating other utility accounts in the future. However, those unpaid bills won’t land you in jail.
If you default on things like car payments and mortgage payments, these items will eventually be repossessed and negatively impact your credit score. Not being able to pay for your car or house won’t land you in jail in the US.
When your debt load becomes too much for you to handle, that’s when you can file for bankruptcy. This means you don’t have to pay what you owe (unless you negotiate a payment plan and commit to keep your house, car, etc.). That won’t land you in jail unless you’ve committed some sort of bankruptcy fraud.
Like I mentioned before, the two main unpaid debts that can land you in jail are unpaid taxes and unpaid child support. You can also go to jail for failure to pay court and criminal costs after a conviction, or to jail for failure to appear in civil debt court. The extent to which these types of debtors can be sued varies by state.
Consequences of Not Paying Your Phone Contract
When it comes to today’s blog post question – can you go to jail for not paying your phone contract? –the answer is negative. Consumer debt like an unpaid phone contract doesn’t lead to jail time. However, it can cause serious problems with your personal finances.
Penalties for unpaid phone bills include interruption of service, damage to your credit score, collection calls, and possibly even lawsuits.
Unpaid phone bills are considered civil debts, which means the creditor can take you to civil court and a judge can rule on the matter. However, the worst thing a judge can do is pass a judgment that forces you to pay creditors. This will likely result in wages being withheld. This will seriously affect your credit score. But again, no jail time.
It is illegal for a debt collector to threaten you with jail time for not paying your phone bill or any other debt. If this happens, document the threat and be prepared to prosecute.
Have debt collectors ever threatened jail time? Let us know in the comments below.
Sources: Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2022 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 Federal Bureau of Prisons Inmate Offense Statistics Why does the US still have debtors prisons? Debtors' Prisons The Return Of Debtor’s Prisons: Thousands Of Americans Jailed For Not Paying Their Bills