Working to Stop Modern-day Debt Prisons in MD
Maryland's Constitution says that "no person shall be imprisoned for debt" and 80 years of state case law make clear that a person cannot be jailed for contempt for disobeying an order to pay money based on a simple contract or debt. But in fiscal year 2012 Maryland courts issued more than 1,800 "body attachments" (or orders for arrest) in debt cases and 39 Marylanders spent one day to 14 days in prison in debt cases. In Baltimore County alone, 27 people were imprisoned in debt cases in 2012.
How could this happen in the 21st Century?
Creditors and debtbuyers regularly use Maryland's courts to collect small debts. Once they've won a debt judgment -- often with little evidence that the alleged debt is really owed -- creditors can ask the courts to require consumers to come to court to answer questions about their assets. Creditors use their responses to garnish paychecks, put liens on property, and take other steps to collect the debt.
If the debtor doesn't appear in court to answer the questions, the judge can order that person to answer a contempt citation. If the debtor doesn't appear for that hearing, the court can issue a "body attachment," or order for arrest. Once arrested, the debtor may languish in jail for days or weeks until he or she can arrange to pay the bond set in the case.
Since those stuck in jail in these cases are almost always stuck there because they can't pay the bond for release, the contemporary version of debtor's prison (like its 19th-Century cousin) in effect criminalizes poverty by unfairly punishing the poor in ways that debtors who are not poor are never punished.
Working to stop debt arrests
Throughout the 2013 MD legislative session, MCRC worked with bill sponsors Del. Luke Clippinger and Sen. Brian Frosh to pass legislation to keep poor Marylanders from being imprisoned for small debts.
While the law we got passed (HB 596/SB 419) does not ban arrests in debt cases, it mandates that the courts can only hold a person in a debt case if they can establish that doing so is the "least onerous" way to collect the debt. That tougher standard will make it much harder to hold MDers in debt cases and keep many poor Marylanders out of prison.
To learn more about our work to stop debt prisons in Maryland, you can:
- Read our factsheet about the debt prison reform bills
- Read our testimony on the House bill and the Senate bill
- Read the testimony of a MDer who spent several days in prison in a small debt case
- Read the county-by-county breakdown of debt arrests and incarcerations in Maryland in FY 2012
- Read the Baltimore Sun's March 2013 article on debt arrests in MD