By Stephen Rickerl

MARION – When troopers from the Illinois State Police knocked on the door of Lisa Lindsay’s Herrin home last spring, she immediately thought something had happened to one of her children. Police departments generally do not deliver good news at 11 p.m.
Lindsay, a breast cancer survivor, quickly learned the troopers were there to take her to jail because of an unpaid medical bill.

On limited income, Lindsay said she was having difficulty paying off her $280 medical bill. She even took a second job to help pay it, but the creditor filed a complaint and she was given notice to appear in court.

Although Lindsay appeared for the hearing, the creditor’s attorney did not and the hearing was rescheduled. Lindsay didn’t know she missed the rescheduled hearing until state troopers showed up at her door.

“I see a lot of crime happen all the time. You see a lot things happen. And you’re always wondering if everything is justified,” she said. “Then you get arrested for a medical bill, for having cancer and you go to jail. It’s just crazy. In this day and age and in this state and county, I don’t think that should happen.”

‘Debtors’ prison’

Lindsay’s case is not unique, a resurgence of so-called “debtors’ prison” has become such an alarming trend that it has grabbed the attention of some of the state’s top officials.

The Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation conducted a hearing Wednesday in Marion to examine the issue and take testimony from members of the public, such as Lindsay, who have been affected by aggressive debt collection practices.
During an interview Wednesday with The Southern Illinoisan’s editorial board, Brent E. Adams, secretary of the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, said consumers are being sued for debt owed to creditors and finding themselves in county jails on the basis of failure to appear in court.

Often, Adams said, those debtors are not even aware they are being sued.

In some cases public resources, which cost taxpayer money, are being used to the creditors’ advantage to collect their private debt.
Several people testified the amount of their bond matched their debt, and that the bond amounts were forfeited to the creditor, neatly solving the problem in favor of the creditor.

Adams said the department began examining the issue in October when it met with lenders and creditors. The department will take testimony from Wednesday’s hearing, and a similar hearing Monday in Alton, to work on possible legislation to find a balance for creditors and debtors. Officials hope to have a first draft of legislation by the end of the month.

Safeguards needed

Sandi Gordon, senior staff attorney at Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation in Carbondale, said her office serves 23 counties in Southern Illinois. She said one of the biggest issues she sees with debtors’ prison is that people don’t understand their rights and get pressured into agreements they can’t afford.

“Procedural safeguards need to be in place to protect these debtors,” she said.

Gordon said about 30 to 40 percent of the debt that people go to jail for is less than $1,000 and the least amount she’s seen someone go to jail for is $210.

Gordon recommended a number of solutions, including the personal service of all citations to ensure that a debtor receives notice and plain language in citations to ensure a debtor understands their obligations and rights.

The sole representative of the credit industry, Bill Bartmann delivered eye-opening testimony that provided insight into an industry that would send a breast cancer survivor to jail over $280.

Debt collector speaks

Bartmann is CEO and President of CFS II, his company buys and collects consumer debt.

Bartmann said his company’s policies specifically do not include use of the threat of jail as a collection mechanism. He said his business actually is more profitable if he is nice to people.

He brought 216 signatures from other debt collectors who disagreed with jailing as a method of collection.

Manuel Flores, director of banking with Professional Regulation, asked Bartmann whether creditors exploit the court system to collect debt.

“Absolutely,” Bartmann replied.

Bartmann disclosed an industry fact the state of a debtors residence will help determine the price a creditor pay when purchasing the debt from another creditor.

There is little difference in the debt or the people when you cross the Mississippi River from Illinois to Iowa, Bartmann said. But a creditor will pay more to purchase the debt of an Illinoisan because the creditor selling the debt knows it is more likely to be collected due to laws and courts that will send police to the doors of debtors.

In essence, Bartmann said, debt collectors do not need a payroll to conduct their business when the state will provide their employees.

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