A Pound of Flesh- The Criminalization of Private Debt

  • In 44 states, judges have the authority to issue arrest warrants if a person fails to appear for a post-judgement proceeding or if a person fails to provide information about their finances.
  • Debtors are represented by an attorney in less than 2 percent of collection cases. 

This report exposes how the private debt collection industry uses the court system to coerce payment from people, many of whom cannot afford to pay their debts. The findings are based upon an analysis of 1,000 cases in which a judge issued an arrest warrant for an alleged debtor. By involving courts in the collection process, people become subject to court appearances, arrest warrants, and in some instances, people are unlawfully jailed.  The author shares personal accounts of people who have been impacted by these unjust practices and  provides recommendations for legislation, court rule changes, and other reforms to address this widespread issue. 

You can read the full text of the report here

Key findings

  • In many cases, people are not aware that they have been sued by a collection agency and if a person does not appear in court for a judgement debtor exam, the creditor can ask the judge to issue a civil warrant for the debtor’s arrest. 
  • In Massachusetts, 1,325 arrest warrants were issued for alleged debtors by four small-claims courts in 2016. 
  • 90 percent of debt cases end in a default judgement against the defendant. 
  • Each year, more than 1 million people across the nation are targeted through the district attorney-debt collector partnerships. 


For U.S. Congress: 

  • Enact federal legislation ending the use of arrest warrants in debt collection cases. 

For state legislatures and state and local courts: 

  • Prohibit the issuance of arrest warrants in debt collection cases. 
  • Until a complete ban on the issuance of arrest warrants in debt collection cases is in place, state legislators and state and local courts should strictly curb the use of arrest warrants for judgement debtors. 
  • Provide effective notice of post-judgement hearings and alternative means of appearance. 
  • Ensure due process protections for people at post-judgement hearings and in debt collection lawsuits to reduce default judgements. 
  • Prohibit courts from issuing orders to pay. 

The complete list of recommendations can be found in the report. 

Jennifer Turner
American Civil Liberties Union