Payday lenders use courts to create modern debtors’ prison
Wakita Shaw’s troubles started with a $425 payday loan, the kind of high-interest, short-term debt that seldom ends well for the borrower.
But most of them don’t end up in jail. So Shaw was surprised in May of last year to hear that the St. Louis County police were looking for her. She and her mother went to the police station.
They arrested her on the spot.
They told her the bail was $1,250. “And I couldn’t use a bail bondsman to get out,” Shaw recalled.
The Bill of Rights in the Missouri constitution declares that “no person shall be imprisoned for debt, except for nonpayment of fines and penalties imposed by law.” Still, people do go to jail over private debt. It’s a regular occurrence in metro St. Louis, on both sides of the Mississippi River.
Here’s how it happens: A creditor gets a civil judgment against the debtor. Then the creditor’s lawyer calls the debtor to an “examination” in civil court, where they are asked about bank accounts and other assets the creditor might seize.
If the debtor doesn’t show, the creditor asks the court for a “body attachment.” That’s an order to arrest the debtor and hold him or her until a court hearing, or until the debtor posts bond.