Debtor's prison, Texas, rent to own

Debtor’s Prison Still Thrives in Texas

By Grace Lidia Suarez

In pretty much the rest of the country, you can’t be jailed because you owe somebody money.

But Texas (surprise, surprise) is different. Up until 2014 or so, it was legal in Texas to throw people in jail for all sorts of debts. Finally, after the press and activists exposed the practice, it was outlawed.

But one aspect survived.

If you buy anything through what is called a “rent to own” plan, and you fail to make your payments, the furniture seller can get you sent to jail. That’s because special interests got the Texas legislature to pass a law specially allowing it.

The law that Bellmead and other authorities in Texas are using to prosecute rent-to-own customers was added to the Texas Penal Code in 1977. Only two people testified in favor of the bill at the time: a pair of lobbyists for the rental industry. No one opposed it. Source:

Rental companies try to justify it with statements like this:

“What are we supposed to do, just write off that each time a customer skips out on us?” said Darrell Perkins, store manager for Advantage Furniture in McLennan County. “Then people aren’t making no money ‘cause you’re giving all your merchandise.”

Of course that’s a situation all lenders face. But somehow in Texas only the “rent-to-own” folks can count on police and courts for muscle.

“It’s just debt collection by the police,” said attorney Jonathan Sibley, whose firm has represented defendants who fall into the crosshairs of rent-to-own stores in Waco. “Other companies can’t call and threaten prosecution to collect a debt.”

And the companies fully exploit their advantage.

In McLennan County, for example, rent-to-own disputes made up 98 percent of the theft of service complaints filed with the Waco and Bellmead police departments from 2014 through the first half of 2017, according to offense reports provided to the Tribune and NerdWallet under state freedom of information laws.

I strongly encourage you to read the whole article in the Texas Tribune by Jay Root and Shannon Najmabadi.

While several states have laws criminalizing the refusal to return rental equipment, Texas seems the only state that extends it to “rent-to-own” schemes (which frankly seem dodgy enough on their own).

The article seems to have had an effect.

I can only hope that the politicians are not just blowing smoke and that the Texas Tribune will soon be able to report the demise of this egregious law.

And by the way, folks, this is why we need independent journalists.

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