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America: The Land Of Debtors' Prisons

In 44 U.S. states, individuals can be jailed for failure to repay their debts, but the ACLU is trying to change that.

The inability to repay personal debt in the United States is landing more and more Americans in jail, leading the ACLU to conclude that America is a land of debtors' prisons.

The accusation is documented in a report by The American Civil Liberties Union, which spent more than a year investigating collection methods across the country, saying it found more than 1,000 cases in 26 states in which judges, acting on the request of a collection company, issued arrest warrants for people they claimed owed money for ordinary debts, such as student loans, medical expenses, unpaid rent and utility bills.

The results ─ just a glimpse of a phenomenon that spans at least 44 states ─ are further evidence of a justice system that criminalizes poverty, from cash bail to the jailing of people over unpaid court fines to the use of private probation companies, the ACLU said.

Those caught up in the system are essentially paying the same consequences as Americans facing criminal charges -- just without the criminal record attached.

The cases, as described in her report, include an elderly Maryland couple who owed $2,300 to their homeowner's association; a Minnesota man placed in solitary confinement on an auto insurance debt despite the fact he'd filed for bankruptcy protection; a Georgia mother whose former landlord said she owed back rent; and an Indiana cancer survivor who'd fallen behind on her treatment bills.

This can happen to Americans in 44 states, but in two particular states, the incidence is significantly higher:

The states with the most egregious abuses, Turner said, were Maryland ─ where President Donald Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, reportedly sought the arrest of tenants of his real estate company ─ and Massachusetts, which are both considering legislation to curb such arrest warrants. The model, she said, was Illinois, which ended the practice in 2012.

Together with other civil rights groups, the ACLU is going state-by-state trying to effect change.

A wave of investigations and lawsuits by civil rights organizations is forcing local courts to curtail their reliance on fines, fees and surcharges related to traffic tickets and other minor offenses. And state and local officials are finding ways to allow indigent people to avoid falling into a cycle of debt and incarceration.