Monday, July 31, 2006
A Debtors' Prison For The 21st Century
A special series in The Boston Globe chronicles the Dickensian plight of debtors in modern-day Massachusetts. The rapidly explanding consumer debt of middle-class Americans has fueled an explosion in the world of debt collection. The number of debt collection agencies nationwide has grown to 162,000 in the last decade, forming a major new sector of the financial services industry. Debt collectors typically purchase old or hitherto uncollectable debts from their original corporate creditors at a fraction of their value, and then apply harrying nighttime visits, car repossession, repeated threats and other strong-arm tactics to recover the full amount from the debtors. Car repossession is one of the most destructive of these tactics, depriving the debtors of transportation to and from their place of employment - and thus preventing them from earning the money that could ease their debts. Sometimes the cars are never returned. In one case, a 71 year old retired college teacher lost not only her car, but a large quantity of expensive medications for her asthma, high blood pressure and diabetes, which were left in her car at the time that it was taken. Car repossession and other forms of harassment are often undertaken with the aid of local constables, deputy sheriffs and towing services - all of which charge fees for their cooperation which are passed onto the debtor.
Debtors have the opportunity to appear in court to argue their case, but the small claims courts of Massachusetts - once intended as a "common law" arena in which citizens faced each other on an equal level - have been retooled as debt extraction instruments for the corporate world. Summonses are frequently mailed to incorrect or out-of-date addresses, cases of mistaken identity occur on a regular basis, and debtors are rarely warned of the full consequences of not appearing on the specified date. 80 percent of debtors, in fact, do not appear in court - often because they cannot afford to miss a day of work - at which point judgment defaults automatically to the plaintiff. Even when debtors do appear, they are almost never represented by an attorney, and they are up against plaintiffs that not only have attorneys present, but are long practiced in the court system. Professional debt collectors have, after all, filed approximately 575,000 lawsuits between 2000 and 2005 in Massachusetts alone. This combination of legal representation and experience puts the debtors at a double disadvantage, and they virtually always lose. According to the Globe, debtors are often treated with less consideration than alleged felons appearing before the criminal court, and they are sometimes sentenced to jail terms if they can not immediately pay their debts.
A veteran of the Iraq War who lost both arms in the conflict was required to fly into court from a military hospital - at his own expense - to respond to a debt collector's false allegation that he was "not a soldier" and therefore not entitled to any legal delay in paying his debts. For more details on this and other state-sanctioned outrages, read the article at the link below.
"Debtors' Hell" from The Boston Globe