States Where You Go to Jail for Unpaid Debts

Not paying consumer debts, like credit cards or loans, won’t usually result in jail time because this isn’t considered a criminal offense. However, several states allow you to go to jail for unpaid debts like federal taxes or child support.

The real reason most debtors go to jail is because they failed to appear for their scheduled court date. Don’t let this happen to you. By understanding your state’s laws, you can ward off an arrest warrant.

Our take

  • In most states, you won’t be jailed simply for failing to repay a debt
  • You could go to jail for failing to repay certain types of debt, including unpaid criminal expenses, back taxes or child support
  • In many states, you may be jailed for failing to appear in court or ignoring a court order
  • Most cases of unpaid debts are held in civil court, not criminal court. No matter what a lender or debt collector says, borrowers won’t be arrested for civil debt
  • If a lender or debt collector is threatening you with arrest or jail, please contact a law firm for legal advice

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Debts that could land you in jail

This includes unpaid criminal justice debt, unpaid taxes and child support. Because these debts are usually court-mandated, failing to repay them has serious repercussions. Your Social Security income could be garnished and an arrest warrant could be issued.

Criminal justice debt

Criminal justice debt, or court debt, is a type of debt that an individual who’s accused of committing a felony, misdemeanor or other infraction must pay. It includes:

  • Fines: These are often applied as part of a punishment for a criminal or civil infraction; they may also include additional surcharges
  • Fees or other costs: These primarily exist to help third parties or a governing body cover operational costs within the criminal justice system
  • Other penalties: These include the cost of things like setting up a payment plan or collecting debt, as well as interest that accrues from not repaying a debt immediately

States that will order jail time for failing to pay criminal justice debts include:

  • Alabama
  • Colorado
  • Georgia
  • Michigan

Unpaid child support

Child support is a court-ordered payment that one divorced parent — usually the one without custody — makes to the other. It’s meant to help financially support any minor children until they’re at least 18 years of age.

If you do not pay child support or fail to attend a court-mandated hearing, a judge could potentially send you to jail. States where you could go to jail for unpaid child support debt include:

  • Alabama
  • Colorado
  • Florida
  • Indiana
  • Maryland
  • Michigan
  • Missouri
  • Oklahoma
  • Pennsylvania
  • South Carolina
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Washington

In some states, you can choose jail instead of repaying debt

Some states, including California and Missouri, offer a third option for those who cannot afford to pay their criminal justice debts: choosing jail. By choosing to go to jail, it may be possible to avoid wage garnishment and reduce criminal justice debt.

However, choosing jail could also result in new debts. According to a report from the Brennan Center for Justice, at least 43 states charge room and board fees for those in jail. Some states also charge for initial booking and basic medical care. These fees may be waived in some instances (and states), but not always. This could result in additional debt.

States where you can be jailed for contempt of court

The most common reason debtors face jail time is because they missed their scheduled court hearing and have been held in contempt of court. If you receive a court summons and fail to appear, an arrest warrant could be issued, so it’s very important that you attend any scheduled court hearings.

Pro tip: Failure to attend a debtor’s examination, a court-ordered process that allows creditors to question debtors about their financial situation, either in court or at your lawyer’s law office, can also result in contempt of court charges. The debtor’s exam usually includes personal questions about pay and bank accounts.

These are the states that allow you to be jailed for contempt of court:

  • Arizona
  • Arkansas
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Idaho
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Kansas
  • Louisiana
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • Missouri
  • Nebraska
  • Ohio
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Washington
  • Wisconsin

However, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), residents of six states will not face jail time for contempt of court.

These states are:

  • Alabama
  • New Mexico
  • North Dakota
  • South Dakota
  • West Virginia
  • Wyoming

You can’t be jailed for failing to repay the following types of debt

One of the most common scare tactics debt collection agencies use to get their money is threatening arrest or jail time.

However, creditors don’t have the ability to issue arrest warrants, file criminal charges or determine who will face criminal prosecution, so they cannot send you to jail for not paying debts. Along with this, most types of consumer debt cannot lead to arrest at all. This includes:

However, all of these will eventually appear on your credit report and severely damage your credit score.

Laws to protect borrowers

The concept of debtor’s prison was also made illegal in 1833. The U.S. Supreme Court has also outlawed the use of prison to punish indigent criminal defendants (those who cannot afford legal representation in court) for not paying court fees and fines. Additionally, a debt collector cannot legally threaten you with jail time, thanks to a federal law known as the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA).

If you have unpaid debts — ex. loans or medical bills — and receive a threat, you could potentially sue them. If you believe your rights have been violated but aren’t sure, contact one or more of the following:

  • Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
  • Federal Trade Commission (FTC)
  • Your state attorney general’s office

There are some legal loopholes that debt collectors and creditors could use to try to get you to pay, though. Several state and local courts include fines, fees, and other court costs as a condition of probation or parole. This allows them to bypass the FDCPA regulations and potentially send you to jail if you don’t pay.

Has the statute of limitations on your debt expired?

A statute of limitations is a state law mandating the maximum time a debt collector or creditor can start a legal proceeding after a specific event. With debt, the statute of limitations begins the last day you made a payment. The time frame varies based on the state and type of debt but usually lasts between two and ten years. Once the statute of limitations has passed, no legal action can be pursued.

Pro tip: If you’re being threatened with jail time or arrest due to unpaid debts, please consult a law firm for legal advice.

The bottom line

Only a few very specific types of debt, such as criminal justice debt or child support, could result in jail time.

However, creditors can sue you in civil court for failing to repay other types of debt. If you fail to attend a court-mandated hearing, you could end up in jail — at least in most states.

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